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A Public School Teacher Was Asked to Take Off His Keffiyeh by Administrators. Is That City Policy?

Free speech advocates say that New York City Public Schools are "systematically trying to suppress and censor pro-Palestine student and teacher speech."

Pro-Palestine parents and educators rally in front of the DOE's Tweed Courthouse offices in January.
Pro-Palestine parents and educators rally in front of the DOE's Tweed Courthouse offices in January. (Hell Gate)

Eric Maillet had been wearing a keffiyeh to work since December as a small, personal act of solidarity with Gaza. Maillet, a teacher at NYC iSchool in SoHo, a public high school, generally took the scarf off before students actually entered his classroom, donning it again at the end of the day. But as the Israeli bombing campaign in Rafah intensified in early May, he began wearing it through the school day—until, on May 10, his principal told him to stop because, he recalled, the superintendent told her that it was "disruptive to the learning environment."

"I think my first response was, 'I don't even think that's legal,'" Maillet told Hell Gate. "Then I was like, 'That's really disappointing.'" Maillet asked NYC iSchool's principal, Cara Tait-Fanor, where this directive was coming from, and he said that she pointed up the leadership chain and told him the superintendent had received multiple complaints about the garment. "Essentially, the messaging that I've gotten is, 'We're getting these mandates from central, from legal, from the superintendent," Maillet said. Tait-Fanor, and the district's superintendent Gary Beidleman did not respond to questions from Hell Gate.

Maillet was made aware of the complaints about his keffiyeh just two days after New York City Public Schools Chancellor David Banks testified in front of the Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and Workforce. During his testimony, Banks adamantly defended the steps he's taken to combat antisemitism—and other forms of prejudice and hatred—in NYC public schools. "Antisemitism doesn't simply affect Jews. Antisemitism affects all of us, particularly all people of good will," Banks said. "I stand up not only against antisemitism, I stand up against Islamophobia and all forms of hate." But some students, parents, and teachers in some New York City public schools, like the students at Staten Island's Susan E. Wagner High School, say they've seen pro-Palestine expression wrongly equated with antisemitism or prohibited political expression.

In a union meeting months before he was asked to stop wearing his keffiyeh, Maillet said he raised that exact concern to NYC iSchool administrators after a November email from Chancellor Banks sparked backlash from educators, who interpreted its directive to "review" teachers' "speech and action" right before a planned school walkout as a threat to the job security of teachers openly supporting Palestine. "They said, 'we're considering [pro-Palestine speech] political expression,' and I commented on how I felt that was hypocritical," Maillet said. "We've got all these other things: climate change, Black Lives Matter. It seems crazy that this is what they're gonna target, when theoretically anything could be political speech." 

In May, the initial meeting Maillet had with his administrators about his keffiyeh was on a Friday, and he said he walked away with the understanding that he couldn't wear the keffiyeh to school at all—something that, when he discussed it with colleagues, didn't sit right with him. By Monday, he had questions, and requested another meeting with Tait-Fanor. "I said that I just wanted to clarify and to make sure that you have it in writing that the superintendent said this. And she was like, 'Well, no—I just want to clarify, that wasn't a mandate. That was a request.' Maybe it was my perception or whatever, but it just didn't feel like a request," Maillet said. Still, he said he sensed a reluctance from Tait-Fanor to make the "request" in the first place. "I've been at schools where I've had vindictive and petty administrators who were making a paper trail for people with letters to file," he said. "I don't see that as the situation here." 

Maillet theorized that the new attention on his keffiyeh was connected to NYC Department of Education Regulation of the Chancellor D-130, which prohibits teachers from campaigning for political candidates or using school property or resources for that kind of political activity. Banks cited D-130 in his November email to NYC Public Schools employees.

A May 1 email from a NYC Public School principal at a different school, addressed to their school's staff and obtained by Hell Gate, frames a reminder about the regulation as "important information regarding civic engagement and political activities that we are expected to adhere to as DOE employees" and also cites D-130 prominently: 

It continues: "school staff should not use school facilities, equipment or supplies to promote political activities, or solicit, direct, or compel students or staff to participate in political speech, events, or activities. In addition, staff should not wear or display items advocating their own personal political points of view or otherwise engage in expression of their own personal political viewpoints while on school grounds." 

Pro-Palestinian expression was not explicitly mentioned in the email, but according to Emma Hulse, a fellow in the New York Civil Liberties Union's Education Policy Center, the implication is unmistakeable—and the framing of the D-130 is deceptive.

"D-130 only applies to uses of school buildings and materials and staff activity in relation to candidates and political organizations," Hulse told Hell Gate—but, she said, that guidance like the email from a NYC Public Schools principal only quotes a small portion of the regulation, obfuscating its specific connection to political candidates and expanding its enforcement domain beyond the intended bounds. That interpretation is "making people think that they absolutely cannot engage in any political expression in schools, and administrators are interpreting that guidance as grounds to discipline school staff for any expression of support for Palestinians," she said.

Hulse said that the NYCLU has been hearing from students and teachers in NYC public schools since October 7 who say they've faced disciplinary action or backlash for openly supporting Palestine. "It's clear to us that the New York City Public Schools is systematically trying to suppress and censor pro-Palestine student and teacher speech—anything from wearing a watermelon t-shirt or watermelon scarf to wearing a keffiyeh to student art, students speeches," Hulse told Hell Gate. 

Hulse said that the external pressure on Banks and NYC Public Schools to curb antisemitism has had a "chilling" effect on speech across the City's school system—which, when it comes to students' self-expression in particular, is a violation of the First Amendment. "The narrative has been framed as 'what is Banks doing to stop antisemitism?' but fundamentally, this is a much bigger issue," she said. "This is about critical thinking, free expression, engagement and learning in the nation's largest and most diverse public school system. Chancellor Banks, in the face of this kind of McCarthyite pressure from Congress, should be leading by example and encouraging his employees to engage with critical issues that matter and not target or penalize them for expressing viewpoints he disagrees with."

NYC Public Schools press secretary Nathaniel Styer told Hell Gate that the guidance in the principal's email that we obtained included language that has been sent out to schools multiple times, as far back as 2019, although our source maintained that principals were instructed to send it out again in May as a precursor to Banks's congressional testimony. "In a system as diverse as New York City, it is critical that educators leave their personal politics at the door," Styer said in a statement. "Our job is to educate and help students grow as critical thinkers, not indoctrinate. This is a long-standing policy and is agnostic of which political stance is being taken. The Chancellor’s November message reinforced that policy for everyone." In regards to the email specifically, Styer told Hell Gate: "This is our long standing guidance as reflected in our Chancellor’s regulations."

Meanwhile, regardless of NYC Public Schools policy, written and implied, Maillet decided to decline his principal's request—he's back to wearing his keffiyeh in the classroom. He's tenured, he said, and unconcerned about job security; his bigger concern is the way something like leaving his keffiyeh at home could impact the high schoolers he teaches. "If we're catering to the feelings of one specific group of people, what are we doing about the feelings of students who may have family in Palestine? What are we doing to show that they are being represented and that they're being heard as well? I think the answer to that is nothing. I think we're silencing those voices," he said. "There are students who are struggling and aren't getting support, because the chancellor has sent out this messaging that we can't say anything about Gaza without getting ourselves in trouble."

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