East Williston school board defends district after furor over graduate’s speech

East Williston school board defends district after furor over graduate’s speech
The East Williston school board defended the district’s handling over a controversial graduation speech during Tuesday night’s board of education meeting. (Photo by Samuele Petruccelli)

Facing criticism over a student’s graduation speech that set off a furor by referring to the violence between Israelis and Palestinians as ethnic cleansing, the East Williston Board of Education declined to address the contents of the speech.

But at a public meeting on Tuesday, board president, Mark Kamberg, said that the district was safe and welcoming for all races and ethnicities.

The student who gave the speech on June 20, Huda Ayaz, was confronted by an adult who shouted “go back to Pakistan” at the commencement ceremony, according to Ahmed M. Mohamed, legal director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Members of the public got the chance to speak to trustees during a near hour-long session of open time, which at times took a combative tone and led people to speak at one another rather than address the trustees. After speaking, one adult made an inappropriate hand gesture directed at Mohamed.

Though speaking at board meetings is usually restricted to district residents, an exception was made to allow all members of the public to offer comments.

Before the first session of open time, Kamberg offered a statement on behalf of the district in response to what he called demands to either condemn or condone the contents of Ayaz’s speech at the Wheatley School’s graduation.

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“The Board of Education will refrain from addressing the content of Huda Ayaz’s speech as this issue is beyond the scope of its jurisdiction and further embroils the district in controversial world political issues,” Kamberg said. “The Board of Education categorically rejects any reports of insinuating our district’s educational environment is anything but safe, inclusive and welcoming of all races and ethnicities. We will not allow others to attempt to redefine who we are as a school district and community.”

Kamberg called Ayaz’s specch and the events following it unfortunate, and they placed the community in an international spotlight. He gave a timeline of the events before and after the ceremony.

“Speak for those who don’t have a voice, and stand up for any injustice that you see,” Ayaz said in her speech at the school’s graduation. “Educate yourself about international dilemmas, including the ethnic cleansings of Palestinians and Uighur Muslims. Families are continuously torn apart, and real human lives are being lost but ignored.”

Kamberg told the public that Wheatley School Principal Sean Feeney had a conversation with Ayaz and her family later that evening and did not hear any word that she was harassed by students or staff.

But in a letter to the Wheatley community following commencement, Ayaz said that at least two men confronted her and said her speech was “bullshit” and “a piece of crap.” This is in addition to the allegation made by CAIR-NY of an adult shouting “go back to Pakistan.” Ayaz and her family are Muslim and of Pakistani descent.

Kamberg shed little light on specifics of the encounter but confirmed there was an interaction between Ayaz and adults.

“According to reports, one of the two men made inappropriate statements to Huda Ayaz and her family about the speech,” Kamberg said. “As the audience began to disperse, another parent attempted to confront Huda Ayaz and her family as they spoke with Dr. Feeney. Dr. Feeney redirected that parent away from them and an officer and administrators walked with Huda and her family to their car.”

During open time Maliha Ayaz, Huda’s youngest sister, expressed concerns for the safety of herself and other members of minorities in the school who choose to speak up.

“You must condemn what happened to my sister and my family,” Maliha Ayaz said. “And you must take steps to provide accountability and a safe environment for me and students like me.”

Maliha Ayaz pointed to differences in the school’s private response versus what was emailed to the community in the following days.

“It completely threw my sister under the bus,” Maliha Ayaz said about the administrator’s emails. “Especially when a school official was apologetic to us in person at the graduation but flipped the script in a public address.”

Both Mohamed and Huda Ayaz claim Feeney spoke privately to her after the ceremony, apologizing and accepting fault for not reviewing her remarks prior. Mohamed stated there was another witness who heard the apology as well. In a statement four days after commencement, Feeney acknowledged that the revised version of the speech was sent to the school, but said he was not made aware that version was updated and did not read it.

Mohamed also spoke to trustees on Tuesday, urging more direct support for Ayaz than in their statement considering the alleged comments by graduation attendees.

“A student that you the school district had an obligation to protect from harassment, from bullying, from intimidation of a minor,” Mohamed said. “You have all the evidence as you stated earlier in your statement in a security video footage. And unfortunately, you failed. The school district failed Huda, failed students in this scenario.”

“As far as I understand this school district stands against hate,” Mohamed said. “If anyone had said that about another group of individuals, you all would have condemned it. Where is the condemnation of the parents’ actions?”

Michael Stanger, a rabbi at the Old Westbury Hebrew Congregation who said he was not speaking on behalf of the congregation, said he felt sorry for Ayaz, and the comment to “go back to Pakistan” should never have been said. He also said he not to condone harassment of anybody, especially a 17-year-old.

“As a Jew and as someone who supports Israel, I was offended,” Stanger said. “I’m all for supporting free speech, but to me, I interpreted it as I saw it, that was hate speech.”

“For a lot of us it was controversial … because it delegitimizes Israel,” Stanger said.

Andrea Bolender, chairperson of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center,  told trustees that she was not there to offer an opinion, but a solution.

The Holocaust center offers curriculum that can deal with these issues, Bolender said. “This is what we do and we are willing to do it for this district,” she said. “The only vaccination for ignorance is education.”

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