Skip to Content
Power

‘The Arab Students of Wagner Would Like to Be Heard’

Six months after October 7, a rift between students and administrators has rocked a Staten Island high school.

Students protest outside of Susan E. Wagner High School on Staten Island.
(Hell Gate)

March 15 was the fifth day of Ramadan, which meant many of the 200-plus students in the buzzing crowd outside of Susan E. Wagner High School, a public school in the heart of Staten Island, were fasting. But that didn't blunt the energy of the teenagers in the crowd, whose animation was palpable from behind the metal police barricades arranged to pen them in on the sidewalk just outside of campus. 

Some teenagers, holding signs that said "Hands off Rafah! Ceasefire now!" or "Palestine Will be Free!" pulled undershirts over their faces or tied keffiyehs around their heads as makeshift masks. Others draped flags from Palestine, Lebanon, and Syria around their shoulders and a few carried a banner for PAL-Awda, the Palestine Assembly for Liberation-Awda, a nonprofit which helped students organize the rally and had members act as marshals. Student organizers moved through the crowd, passing out fliers to their peers and a handful of adults with a list of offenses titled "WHAT DID WAGNER DO" in a font designed to mimic wet paint, or dripping blood. "Safe space for racist Zionist faculty," "donated to israel [sic]," and "racial profiling" were listed among the offenses. "The incidents above are only a fraction of what pro-Palestine students have endured at Wagner High School. Today, we are walking out of school in protest of Wagner's suppression of pro-Palestine students and in solidarity with Palestine," a note at the bottom read.

M., a 17-year-old senior at Wagner, had written most of the flier himself, and many of the experiences described on it were his own, stemming from a months-long conflict with one Wagner teacher and the school's administrators. (M.'s name has been abbreviated out of fear of retaliation for his involvement in organizing, and in this article.) He stood tall in a black sweatshirt and Timberland boots, his glasses peeking out from the keffiyeh wrapped around his head and neck as he surveyed the crowd. Later, he told me he was thrilled to see his peers reading what he'd written—he could almost see the light bulbs going off above their heads as they took in his chronicle of what he and his friends in the school's Palestinian Club and newly formed Arab Student Association had been grappling with since October. "I heard people making little comments here and there like, 'Oh my God, they actually did that? Or like, 'Oh, it makes sense why they're protesting now,'" he told me. "It made me really happy to see that."

Outside of Susan E. Wagner on March 15. (Hell Gate)

The rally took place on the same block in front of the school that M. and a handful of his friends waited in front just over a month earlier, when they left school early to participate in a citywide student walkout for Gaza—where, as they walked towards the bus stop, a stranger leaned out of his car and spit at the keffiyeh-clad group of teenagers.

This time, a handful of adult counter protesters had gathered across the street, with the goal of disrupting the much larger group of students rallying outside of Wagner. The only moment of violence at the rally came from one of the adults across from the high school. While an Al Awda member—a mother herself, with a child in a NYC Public School elsewhere in the city—was speaking in front of the high school, a man with a graying beard in an "I Love Israel" shirt surged across the street and flung a stack of papers, hard, into the crowd of students. They struck a 14-year-old girl in the face and left her with a red mark on her cheek that remained for the rest of the rally. She declined to talk to me, saying that she'd have to speak to her parents first, but was visibly shaken. Multiple students told me that there have been no physical fights at Wagner related to the October 7 attacks or the ongoing razing of Gaza.

Two of the lead student organizers, including M., led Wagner-specific twists on pro-Palestine protest standards: "1, 2, 3, 4, Zionists at Wagner no more!" "When Palestinian students are under attack, what do we do? Stand up, fight back!" "Wagner, Wagner, you can't hide, you're supporting genocide!"

The conflict between Israel and Palestine has ignited proxy conflicts in New York City's schools, both public and private, since the issue was thrust back into the spotlight after Hamas's October 7 attack on Israel. Since then, antisemitism in New York City's public schools has been taken seriously enough to warrant testimony from Department of Education Chancellor David Banks in front of the congressional committee that heard from Claudine Gay and Minouche Shafik on the same subject. But some parents, educators and students believe that Islamophobia and anti-Palestinian sentiment in the NYCPS system have not been given the same weight. 

Wagner's students, especially a small but vocal group of Palestinian and Arab American teenagers, say they've experienced prejudicial treatment from Wagner teachers and administrators in the wake of October 7. They say they feel silenced, surveilled, made to comply with rules their peers don't have to contend with. This walkout was their answer to that feeling. It's important to remember that the students in this story are the kind of Nike-wearing, Snapchat-using teenagers you might find at any New York City public school, and the teachers and administrators they've clashed with since the fall are adults who've chosen to work in the City's public school system. 


The October 7 attacks happened on a Saturday, and according to students, tension began simmering at Wagner by the following week. Palestinian American and Arab American students said they started to feel singled out by teachers and administrators. One Palestinian American student said she was told by a dean to take off her keffiyeh the week after the attacks because it was against school rules, although no such rule exists at Wagner; others said they were trailed by deans and administrators as they walked between classes and reprimanded for lingering in the hallways like high schoolers generally tend to do.

But according to M., as well as multiple other students, the most shocking incident that week happened in a class led by Rachael Monaco, the coordinator of Wagner's Virtual Enterprises program, an international curriculum designed to teach students business and entrepreneurial skills. On October 13, Monaco, who is Jewish, told one of her classes that the message behind the "day of jihad" declared by a Qatar-based former Hamas leader on that day was "to kill all Jews," that the keffiyeh was "disgusting" and represents terrorism, and that she felt nervous and uncomfortable around students "representing" Palestine, because she was afraid they would target her. 

Monaco's comments cut M. particularly deep—as a Palestinian American, he felt the impact of her words on a personal level, like she'd called him a terrorist. He had been a part of the virtual enterprise program led by Monaco since he was a freshman, and until that day, he said the two of them had been close. But Monaco's statements changed the way he saw her. He no longer felt comfortable in her class, and this discomfort—and anger—sapped his ability to be an attentive, enthusiastic student. M's parents said their son informed them of Monaco's comments right after she made them—specifically that, his mother recalled, "the keffiyeh is disgusting and reminded her of terrorists." (M's father works for the New York City Police Department, and his mother works for a New York City charter school. Their names are being withheld because of their occupations and because, like many parents of Arab and Palestinian students, they worry about potential backlash against themselves and their children for speaking out.)

M.'s parents called the dean's office at Wagner to discuss Monaco's conduct that same day. Another set of parents reached out to the school, too. But when M. met with the school's principal, David Cugini, on October 27—a meeting he and his friends requested because they wanted to discuss the atmosphere for Arab students at Wagner in more general terms—he found that his parents' complaints hadn't reached the head of the school. When M. mentioned Monaco's comments to Cugini, he was told by the principal that it was the first time he was hearing about what Monaco had said. M. filed a written complaint about Monaco's conduct with Cugini soon after that meeting.

After his written complaint, M. was told by Principal Cugini that Monaco was disciplined and received training as a result of her comments in the classroom. But she remained the program's teacher, and the classroom environment only became even more tense. "She started acting very weird in class," M. said, after he and other students filed their complaints. According to M., Monaco began alluding to the incident while teaching, saying things like, "some kids reported me"—and M. felt that she started making clear references to him in particular. "She made it obvious that it was me, making comments in class like, 'If you look around the room, you could probably find out who it is,' and 'It's always somebody that you think you can trust, someone that you think you're close with,'" he said. 

Monaco's comments made M. feel increasingly alienated from the other students in the virtual enterprise program. He said Monaco pulled his friends into private conversations and talked about how he'd reported her; soon, he felt his peers giving him the cold shoulder. He began to feel less and less comfortable on his virtual enterprise team, which led to him missing out on after school meetings, making him feel even worse. "The perfect analogy is like having a bottle, and if you keep adding to the bottle and keep shaking it, eventually it's going to burst," M. said. 

On November 6, M. received a warning slip from Monaco which knocked five percentage points off of his overall grade in the course, which led to a verbal argument between the two of them in front of his classmates. M. accused Monaco of treating him differently; she denied any change in her behavior. After M. talked to his guidance counselor about the confrontation, a dean set up a meeting between the two in mid-November at Monaco's request. That ended, according to M., in yet another yelling match, and Monaco in tears. "She said that I was bombarding her and putting all this pressure on her to make her seem like a bad teacher," he recalled when we spoke in February. "She was like, 'You don't understand what you did to me, by reporting me.' And I was like, 'What happened? You just got spoken to, what's the problem? You also have to understand that I'm not wrong for reporting you, you were wrong for making the comments.'"

The perfect analogy is like having a bottle, and if you keep adding to the bottle and keep shaking it, eventually it's going to burst."

Monaco did not respond to an interview request or specific requests for comment, instead referring me to the United Federation of Teachers. "The UFT does not comment on specific cases," Alison Gendar, a UFT spokesperson told Hell Gate when I reached out to Monaco about her conflict with M. and her employment status. "We continue to work with Wagner and DOE staff to ensure all educators and students are treated with respect and understanding." 

Meanwhile, outside of Monaco's classroom, other administrators began zeroing in on Palestinian students, especially those in Wagner's Palestinian Club. 

The week after October 7, students say that Wagner administrators stopped them in the halls and told them that they were no longer allowed to bring international flags to school after some students started bringing Palestinian flags—something that was previously normal at Wagner, where students from places like Albania or Ukraine would tie flags to their backpacks and wear them around the hallways. The official reason administrators gave the students upset about being told to keep their Palestinian flags at home was that the flag ban was a new, citywide policy from NYC Public Schools. (According to NYC Public Schools, there is no such policy.)

Then, in December, the Palestinian Club clashed with school administrators again over Wagner's International Festival, an annual two-day event where students with foreign heritage are invited to showcase that culture. The club planned to perform a traditional Palestinian dance and wave Palestinian flags as a finale, while wearing hoodies that read "If You're Reading This, Free Palestine." All performances needed to be pre-approved by school administrators, and according to Omar Widdi, a 17-year-old junior at Wagner and a member of the Palestinian Club, when the club members submitted the sweatshirts for approval, they were told they couldn't wear them. An administrator, Widdi told Hell Gate, "said it was too political—even though our whole existence is basically political."

The rejected International Day sweatshirt. (Hell Gate)

All this time, as 2023 was winding down to a close, M. and other members of Wagner's Palestinian Club had done their best to communicate with Principal Cugini, doggedly requesting and attending meetings in an attempt to get Wagner teachers and administrators to empathize with them, and ease up on what they saw as excessive scrutiny of their behavior. 

In late October, during one such conversation, according to M., Cugini suggested the students make a video about their cultures to help teachers and Wagner staffers better understand their perspective. Palestinian Club members walked away from that meeting under the impression that if they made a video, Cugini would show it to staff members. They put together a video, just shy of three minutes, titled "Arab Cultures: Common Major Misconceptions and Stereotypes." The video touches on topics like what the keffiyeh represents and the distinctions between Arab culture and Islam. It ends with a plea addressed to their intended audience of teachers and administrators: 

"The Arab students of Wagner would like to be heard. We would like to no longer be looked down upon solely because you may not understand our culture. We would like to feel that you are not threatened by us. We would like to extinguish the air of hostility that we have been feeling for the past month. We understand you may not be educated on certain topics, not sure how to approach your Arab students at a time like this, but we kindly ask you to educate yourselves beyond this video. Reverse your biases and become conscious of them. Thank you."

When the club sent Cugini the video in mid-November, the principal responded in an email that based on the meeting with the students where such a video was discussed, "there were differing opinions about the video being sent out." According to M., Cugini later told club members in person that he hadn't actually expected them to follow through on making anything. 


Staten Island is the only remaining borough in New York City where a majority of its residents are white. The borough has played host to virulent anti-migrant sentiment in recent months, and many relatives of current Wagner students have lived there long enough to recall the atmosphere of hate, paranoia, and Islamophobia that bubbled up in the community post-9/11—the NYPD surveillance of the city's Muslim population in the wake of the attack, and the Staten Island politicians loudly opposing the erection of a mosque near Ground Zero almost a decade later.

M.'s father, who grew up in Brooklyn, said the virtual enterprise teacher's words didn't surprise him. "I went to public school, and I had teachers who, when I would tell them I was from Palestine, would be like, 'There is no Palestine.' We had that argument all the time. My parents were immigrants that just came to this country and they weren't standing up." The mindset he and his siblings were raised with, he said, was: "'Just shut up and do your classwork and that's it. Don't worry about what the teacher's saying. Just respect the teacher and move on.' But it's tough to do, especially when teachers are telling you there is no land that you're from, you know?"

Maria, a Palestinian American whose daughter attends Wagner, told Hell Gate that she was concerned for her child's safety, and recounted a particularly troubling incident that had occurred shortly after October 7. "Last year, my daughter—a freshman—was on the track team, and a staff member stopped my daughter and he told her, 'You're so dumb, that's why your people lost their land,'" Maria recounted. "I had to go in with my husband and my 25-year-old brother that graduated from this school. My brother knew every dean and every administrator in there—and he was like, 'Why are you guys doing this?'" 

The staff member apologized, according to Maria, and she decided to drop it—to be the bigger person. "My parents taught me, 'Don't say anything,' and I wish I was a part of this generation," she said, her eyes glossed with tears. "Because in my time, I was muzzled. I was hurt the same way these children are hurting, and I wasn't allowed to say a word." 

But now that Maria's generation of Palestinian American New Yorkers have children of their own, they're speaking up—and teaching their kids to do the same. When M. and six other Palestinian Club members walked out of Wagner in February, as part of the citywide pro-Palestine student action, conversation on the three-bus, hour-plus commute from Staten Island to a rally in Bryant Park turned to family as one student discovered that he'd lost the megaphone his father bought him for the rally between bus transfers. ("Tell him when you get home, don't tell him now," one student advised her visibly stressed, megaphone-less friend. "No, tell him now so he'll have time to get over it!" another suggested.) The club members, who ranged in age from 14 to 18, said their parents were generally proud and supportive, attending pro-Palestine protests themselves, like the giant marches in Washington, D.C. 

Wagner student protesters walk through Times Square in February. (Hell Gate)

A few students recalled stories passed down from their relatives about racism and Islamophobia from their own time in the City's public school system: A freshman said her uncle, in the months after 9/11, was told by a teacher at his Brooklyn public high school, "If I had a knife right now, I would stab you." A sophomore said she had a cousin at a Brooklyn high school who told her that keffiyehs had been banned from his school entirely in October. Dina, a senior whose name has been changed for privacy reasons, has two older brothers who also attended Wagner and said they faced a similar atmosphere during their time at the school. "There's always been an atmosphere of hostility against Arabs at Wagner," she said. "It's been the same thing. They don't like 'em, they treat them like they're going to do something, you know what I mean?" 

"Every time that we talk to a teacher, or a principal, they always say, 'We want to make sure everybody feels safe.' OK, you want to make sure everybody feels safe. But what about us?" Widdi added. "We don't feel safe," he continued. "That's not a priority, apparently."

From the Palestinian Club's perspective, there were even literal signs that their concerns weren't a priority. In January,  they started seeing fliers around the school advertising a toiletry drive by the school's National Honors Society and a social services club, in conjunction with the local JCC. M. said that the idea that the school was promoting donations to an organization explicitly trying to strengthen the relationship between the U.S. and Israel in the wake of October 7 made him and his friends feel uncomfortable and "helpless." M. said he made two calls to the JCC and asked them where the donations from the drive were going. According to him, the JCC representative said they were going "straight to Israel" both times he asked. Allison Cohen, the chief of communications and fundraising for the Joan & Alan Bernikow JCC, told Hell Gate via email that donations for the drive in question were actually for a kosher Staten Island food pantry, something they'd confirmed to school administrators. Still, Palestinian Club members said that after they complained, the flyers were taken down.

There's always been an atmosphere of hostility against Arabs at Wagner... They don't like 'em, they treat them like they're going to do something, you know what I mean?"

Cugini directed Hell Gate's request for comment to the NYC Public Schools press office, as did Staten Island NYC Public Schools superintendent Marion Wilson. "As the chancellor has stated repeatedly, Islamophobia and other acts of bias have no place in our schools," NYC Public School press secretary Nathaniel Styer said in a statement. "The superintendent is fully engaged with the Wagner High School community and is working to ensure the school climate is safe and welcoming to all students. She helped the principal develop a comprehensive action plan, connect with groups of students, and engage with professional development on creating an inclusive school community." 

Those efforts included a March workshop for teachers on how to facilitate "difficult conversations" between students and updated classroom resources on Islamophobia, antisemitism, and bullying. (Contrast that to the email missive from Department of Education Chancellor David Banks that went out to NYPS teachers in November about disruptive political speech, which many teachers viewed as an attempt to stave off staff participation in a citywide pro-Palestine school walkout. "When speech and action — even on one’s personal time — undermines the mission or core functions of NYCPS, we will review and take appropriate action on a case-by-case basis," the chancellor reportedly wrote.) "While we do not comment on individual personnel actions, we do investigate every allegation and follow up with necessary action when needed," Styer said.

By February, M. and Monaco continued to clash over his performance in her class. M. continued to meet with deans, Principal Cugini, and guidance counselors to push for what he saw as adequate consequences for Monaco, though he didn't quite know what that would look like. All he knew, he said, was that a few hours of training didn't feel adequate. M. became quiet and withdrawn in virtual enterprise class—and he said Monaco noticed the change and questioned him about it in front of his peers. "It was antagonizing," he said. "Like, 'Why are you acting so down? Where's your energy?' Asking me what was wrong, but not in a nice or caring way. " He kept trying to brush off her questions and told her repeatedly that he would rather speak to her after class. But he said she wouldn't drop it—so after a week of non-stop questions, M. snapped: "I was like, 'Honestly, Ms. Monaco, you can't expect you to have so much energy in the classroom, for me to be all involved, when you have been treating me differently, and you said things about me to my friends.' And then I was like, 'you're a racist, and you made all those racist comments!'" 

The rally outside of Wagner winds down. (Hell Gate)

In a recording of a private conversation between M. and his teacher later that day, Monaco expressed frustration with M's refusal to "get over" what she'd said. She'd apologized, she told him, and received counseling from the school. Why wasn't that enough? 

"You know nothing about me, and you called me a racist," Monaco said.

"I said something really bad, and you know what? I paid my penance for it," she continued, referring to the comments she had made on October 13. "I don't know what you hope to accomplish by writing me up—I don't know if your goal is to have me removed from the New York City Department of Education, but I was counseled for it, and I paid my penance for it, and I'm moving forward because that's what a professional does and that's what I am." "So, do you think I'm unprofessional for not moving forward?" M. responded. "You're a teenager, that's what you are," Monaco replied. 

After M.'s outburst, Monaco and Cugini proactively reached out to M.'s parents for the first time. M.'s mother said she received a phone call from Monaco the day M. yelled at her in class, and said she ended the conversation with the impression that the teacher was trying to position herself as "a victim." "I told her, 'You're teaching, and in the middle of the class, M. stands up out of nowhere and he said, 'Racist Monaco'?" she said. "I said, 'It's not making sense. What did you do to the kid to make him say that?' I'm not saying my son never said that. Maybe he said it. But how did it start?"

Months ago, she said, when her son had told her about what Monaco said to her class, she had been willing to put her alarm over them aside, as M. completed his senior year. "It's not OK, but I said, 'I don't want somebody to lose her job, she's a teacher, she worked a lot to be in this position. She made a mistake,'" she said of her previous attitude towards the situation. But now, she said, she was convinced that Monaco shouldn't be in the same classroom as her son—or any other student, for that matter. 

When M.'s parents expressed confusion about why they hadn't been contacted by the school sooner, M. said Cugini responded that because he was 17 years old, he was old enough to talk to his parents himself—the school didn't need to do it for him. According to M.'s parents, when they finally came to the school a few days later, the meeting was unproductive; the administrators were unwilling to discuss Monaco's comments from October. They only wanted to speak about M.'s outburst. "They basically were saying, 'Well, that old allegation [of her anti-Palestinian comments], that case is closed.' What do you mean, it's closed? We're not going to talk about the source of the problem?" his father said. 

M. said that meeting was the last time he ever spoke with Monaco. He left the virtual enterprise class soon after. Monaco assigned him coursework to complete on his own time, and told him he could come back for the final exam at the end of the school year so he could still get his certificate for completing the four-year program.

The bigger issue, however, was the way M.'s fractured relationship with Monaco impacted his primary extracurricular activity at Wagner. Students who were particularly dedicated to the virtual enterprise program could be selected by Monaco to join an extracurricular team during their senior year, where members create their own business, then travel to state and national competitions to compete with students from other schools. M. was one of those students, and he told Hell Gate he had been looking forward to competing in virtual enterprise competitions as a senior for his entire high school career—a dream that hadn't changed, in spite of his conflict with Monaco.

So, he was shocked when he walked into his virtual enterprise class in late February—a few weeks after his outburst—to find a substitute teacher and a room full of fellow students wondering why he'd shown up; it was the day of the extracurricular virtual enterprise competition, and they'd all expected him to be at that competition. He called me from a guidance counselor's office, his voice radiating hurt. 

"Nobody told me and they all went without me," M said. He told me his guidance counselor watched him talk on the phone. "I'm so lost, so confused, and I'm just so angry. It's gotten to the point where I don't even feel comfortable being in this school anymore. All my begging and all my efforts have been going nowhere. It will really take something for them to care, because nobody cares." (M.'s guidance counselor, Patricia DeAngelo, did not respond to a request for comment from Hell Gate.)

(Hell Gate)

That something, he hoped, would be the rally being planned in front of Wagner for March 15. For months, students had been talking with organizers at PAL-Awda about staging an action at their school—something loud and unignorable to make the administration understand that they were in pain, thanks to the school's actions, and that they were serious about taking a stand.

Monaco viewed the rally as a slap in the face: It was the same day that the virtual enterprise program had scheduled a trade show, which students from other schools were planning to attend. After consulting with other staff members, Monaco made the decision to cancel the show—and shared her reasoning with one of her virtual enterprise classes in a twenty-minute lament, which was recorded by one of the students, to a largely silent audience. Her words made it clear that she saw the walkout as a personal affront. "I had to go see my union representative this morning to discuss this, because when does it end?" she said. She wondered aloud if it had all been set up to "yank my chain."  

She continued: The fact that the students were choosing to protest in front of the school—making it, in her estimation, potentially unsafe for visitors. "Protests are supposed to be peaceful, and in the event that it's not—what if, God forbid, a kid gets hurt because they're coming to the trade show? What if a bus pulls up from New Jersey and they have a bus full of kids and someone throws something at them. We have a yeshiva coming Friday, a Jewish school, religious kids," she said, pausing. "I don't know how to make peace, but I do know that some of you are still friends with the former classmate in here," she said, which M. told me he understood as a clear reference to him. "So, I'm speaking very generically," she continued. "If any of you are still friends with that former classmate, you can just run back and tell that former classmate everything I said, because I said nothing. Sorry! You got nothing on me." 

Paradoxically, though, she asked the students not to discuss what she had said with other classmates. "Don't run out of this room after second period opening up your mouth," she said. "A lot of you like to gossip; you like to gossip with your friends and then you don't realize that your gossip becomes this. You have no idea how much gossip becomes. So, my recommendation is not to talk about this, to not discuss it."

M. soon received that video recording from a friend in the class. He showed it to his parents, and his mother swiftly emailed the school. "Not only were the things she said disgusting but the fact that she thinks that she’ll get away with it because she’s being generic is extremely unprofessional and childish," she wrote of Monaco. "She has already put my son through so much, don’t you think he’s had enough? What she is doing now is only adding fuel to the fire. I understand that one person's action can’t dictate an entire staff of people but it is clear the consequences and disciplinary measures were never taken seriously." 

Finally, M. said, the complaints landed; Although she is still listed as the head of the Virtual Enterprise program on Wagner's website, he heard later that day that Monaco would not be coming back to school for some indeterminate period of time. He has since returned to his virtual enterprise class, now taught by another teacher. Wagner never put out any official announcement that she'd been removed, M. said. But some time in April, when students weren't around to watch, her belongings vanished from her classroom. 


In May, Fox News would describe the March walkout that M. and his friends organized as an "anti-Israel rally" organized in conjunction with "antisemitic groups promoting the destruction of the Jewish state." One supposedly damning piece of supporting evidence: the fact that students stopped outside of the local JCC, as NYPD officers in riot gear clutched batons and eyed the crowd and a fleet of transport vans sat in a lot across the street. But the JCC wasn't a random target—it was the beneficiary of the toiletry drive in January that had angered M. and his fellow Palestinian Club members, something clearly explained on the fliers handed out at the beginning of the walkout. After a brief speakout, the action ended close to where it began: on a hill next to Wagner after participating students marched back from the JCC. 

Wagner students walking back from the JCC, as a NYPD officer holds his baton at the ready. (Hell Gate)

M. couldn't stick around and talk to me after the protest was over on March 15—he had to, he said, have a meeting with Principal Cugini and the Staten Island schools superintendent Marion Wilson.

When we caught up a few days later, M. said he was buoyed by the conversation with the superintendent, which he believes never would have happened without the walkout—the superintendent reached out to him after the students publicized the Wagner walkout on social media. "There were a few moments during the meeting that were honestly kind of embarrassing on Mr. Cugini as the principal," he recalled, laughing. "I would say something that the school did wrong, then I'd look at the superintendent, and she looked very disappointed. Then she'd look at Mr. Cugini, and he'd look ashamed, and she would be like, 'So, you know what you did wrong, right?' Like, reprimanding him in front of me!" (In a private email, Wilson denied this characterization, writing, "I never said that to that principal.")

"I want to give credit where credit is due," M.'s father told me in April. After the rally, he said Wilson remained in contact with him and his wife, speaking to them three times on the phone and texting them personally to check in with their son. Still, M.'s father said he faults the Department of Education for allowing Monaco to continue teaching for so long. What they'd heard from the principal before the superintendent intervened, he said, was that because Monaco was tenured, "they feel like their hands are tied. I don't believe that. I think they could have removed her a long time ago. I think after she made that racial comment in the class with a whole bunch of Palestinian students and Palestinian supporters, they could've removed her."

Between Monaco's apparent suspension and the acknowledgement from the superintendent that something happened, something real, M. said he finally feels like Wagner is moving toward a place like justice for what he and his fellow Arab students have been feeling, though it's too late for him to reap those rewards; he graduates in June. "The superintendent started asking me, 'What did you want out of this protest? What are your hopes?'" he said, thinking back to the meeting after the walkout. "I was like, no disrespect, but I really hope that another student doesn't have to be at another meeting with the superintendent and with their principal like this one." 

That may be aspirational—a few weeks after the rally and M.'s meeting with Wilson, Cugini ordered an investigation into Wagner's Arab Student Association after the principal clashed with students over an outside speaker who led a teach-in on Palestine, whom the students brought into an afterschool club meeting. The investigation hasn't deterred them, though—the students already organized a second walkout in April that happened the same day as the solar eclipse. 

"We demand that you notice us as Palestinians, because the people of Palestine are hurting, and we're hurting too," the crowd yelled en masse, as Cugini faced them with his hands in his pockets.

With summer on the horizon, M. is hopeful that he's left an impression on the school he's about to graduate from. "It's no longer about me and about how I feel, because the school has already done so much to damage me and to damage my entire senior year," he said. "Now, it's just about future generations. If something like this were to happen again, the school would look back and remember this entire situation, and know not to go down that same path—not to make the same mistakes and make another student feel the way that they made me feel."

Already a user?Log in

Thanks for reading!

Give us your email address to keep reading two more articles for free

See all subscription options

Stay in touch

Sign up for our free newsletter

More from Hell Gate

As Change to Broker Fees Looms, Real Estate Agents Are Suddenly Concerned That the Rent Is Too High

At a rally to oppose the FARE Act, REBNY and real estate agents expressed a newfound concern about rising rents and the lives of tenants.

New York State Lawmakers Once Again Fail to Pass Meaningful Climate Legislation

While Governor Hochul's last-minute congestion pricing "pause" had a lot to do with it, there's plenty of blame to go around.

We’re So Back: East Village Dollar Slice Joint Is Back to Selling 99 Cent Slices

Owner Sana Ullah said that cratering demand at the elevated price point motivated him to bring it back down.

See all posts