A California school district forced four Jewish students to remain silent after they became targets of antisemitic harassment and now is misusing a federal law to prevent anyone from holding administrators accountable.

The social media account Libs of TikTok posted a report Monday of a verbal attack on four 11-year-old Jewish students at a California middle school that resulted in the Jewish students being forced to sign a gag order to prevent them from sharing information on the incident. 

The Libs of TikTok post states that the four Jewish students at Manhattan Beach Middle School in Manhattan Beach, California, were approached sometime after Hamas’ Oct. 7 massacre of 1,400 civilians in Israel and told, among other disturbing comments, that “revenge is beautiful” and “all Israelis and Jews should be killed.”

Administrators of the Manhattan Beach Unified School District concluded that the comments made to the Jewish students were “political and not hate speech,” closing their investigation with what they described as “limited action.” 

Administrators were not remotely clear in what they meant by this, or what exactly happened, including who did what.

The four students to whom the hateful remarks were directed reportedly were forced to sign a gag order preventing them from talking to anyone at the middle school or on social media about the abuse.

The California Anti-Defamation League, which in July presented the Manhattan Beach school district with a No Place for Hate award for “leading the charge against bias, bullying, and hatred,” issued a statement Monday night decrying the district’s egregious series of actions in this incident.

ADF called the actions of Manhattan Beach administrators “deeply hurtful” and a jeopardy to “the safety of the learning environment.”

My Heritage Foundation colleague Roman Jankowski asked the Manhattan Beach school district to turn over emails from Jennifer Huynh, the principal of Manhattan Beach Middle School, regarding the verbal attack on the four Jewish students. (The Daily Signal is Heritage’s news outlet.)

In reply, the school district’s public information officer, Hibah Samad, emailed an elusive and obstructive statement to Jankowski informing him that the district wouldn’t release emails concerning the harassment of the students, details of the investigation, or what the investigation concluded.

The Manhattan Beach school district informed The Daily Signal that administrators were “aware of recent allegations” concerning the antisemitic harassment of the 11-year-olds.

School district administrators characterized the harassment as  “inappropriate interactions between students at MBMS [Manhattan Beach Middle School] surrounding their views on current events in the Middle East.” 

Administrators then stonewalled on releasing any other information by hiding behind the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act of 1974.

Although the California school district claimed that antisemitism would not be tolerated on campus, it refused to provide any information about how Jewish students would be protected amid drastically increased rates of antisemitic harassment since Hamas’ terrorist attacks in Israel three weeks ago.

The school district suggested that gag orders signed by the students, which administrators call “no contact contracts,” are normal. They claimed that “these agreements are commonly used in school districts across the country and even in universities.” 

The gag orders, administrators said in the statement, prevent students from “reigniting situations” by requiring that students “avoid each other and not speak to one another.”

“No contact contracts” never have worked, though, and it is neither legal nor ethical for government entities to ask minors to sign behavioral contracts. What’s more, a school district that hides behind “child privacy laws” to avoid accountability for its actions is woefully misapplying the 1974 law.

The law, known as FERPA, protects parents’ right to any and all information about their children’s education—including what goes on academically, behaviorally, medically, and socially at school. The law was written to enshrine parental rights in two ways:

  1. In the event of a violent or traumatic incident, parents would be given exclusive access to any and all information about the incident concerning their child.
  2. The education records of a student, which in 1974 were only academic and medical, were the sole property of the child’s parents—and thus could not be accessed by third parties without the parents’ permission.

The law accomplishes these two goals by defining any “characteristic” that could lead to identification of a student as protected information.

Public school districts have twisted FERPA over the past two decades to become a coverall for embarrassing or damning situations. Schools may safely weather any storm of parental and community concern by claiming that any details concerning disciplinary incidents, curricular transparency, or even assault and battery could lead to the exposure of a minor.

In the past three years, over 30 school districts in 11 states  have responded to public information requests and policy clarifications by informing me that to provide any information might violate FERPA. Those states are California, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New Jersey, Florida, Texas, Michigan, Kentucky, New York, and Virginia. 

Situations in which districts use FERPA as a shield from accountability can contribute to additional attacks, harassment, and abuse. In September, South Madison Community Schools in Pendleton, Indiana, refused to provide the parents of a sexual assault survivor with information regarding the investigation of her attacker, another student.

Within weeks, this assailant broke a restraining order and a similar “no contact contract”—and the victim’s parents weren’t allowed to know whether the student had been suspended or expelled, because of South Madison’s claims under FERPA.

That’s not how FERPA works—and Manhattan Beach joins this long line of school districts in denying taxpayers’ access to public emails on a public server in the name of “privacy laws.”

At the very least, congressional lawmakers must update the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act to clarify its intent and to reevaluate new mediums of communication and access brought about by the information technology boom of the 21st century.

If we don’t update FERPA, we’ll continue to watch as public school districts such as those in Manhattan Beach, South Madison, and Virginia’s Loudoun County cover up scandal after heinous scandal under the cheap excuse of a federal law.

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