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Fear and loathing in Bloomfield Hills Schools

Bloomfield Hills High School has been one of the top-rated high schools in the state, a model of how a multicultural community can come together to thrive both educationally and culturally. Yet, in one swift motion – in the form of an all-school diversity assembly held for each grade, one at a time on Tuesday, March 14 – all of its hard work and benevolent cooperation imploded as a faculty-approved speaker has created an uproar where it is now students against students, parents against parents, neighbors against neighbors, and everyone against the school administration.

Rather than creating understanding amidst diversity, it has shown the divisiveness in the community, and exacerbated alienation and estrangement.

To explain, a diversity group comprised of sophomores and juniors at the school, with the assistance of a faculty advisor, invited speakers to a diversity assembly. There were four separate assemblies for all students, with an American Chinese man, a transgender woman, an Indigenous individual, and Palestinian activist Huwaida Arraf invited to speak to students, supposedly to present different backgrounds and experiences.

The bone of contention centered around Arraf, a noted anti-Israeli Palestinian speaker who co-founded the International Solidarity Movement. She was the chair of the Free Gaza Movement, the organization behind the Gaza Freedom Flotillas, and has a history of controversial tweets. She has referred to Zionists (those in favor of the state of Israel) as occupiers running an apartheid state, and accused Israel of genocide in the Gaza Strip. At the assemblies, Arraf made statements calling Israel an apartheid state, “an oppressor,” as well as denying Israel's existence, which left many Jewish students and others in the community upset and uncomfortable, and Islamic and Arab students feeling recognized.

It is questionable how well-versed the student committee was in their assignment, and how well the advisor assisted them in choosing speakers. While inviting an Islamic individual to provide their perspective on diversity was not objectionable, someone with a less anti-Israel activist stance – easy to discern with a quick Goggle search – could potentially have provided less tinder to the situation.

There have been numerous reports of harassment and hate incidents since the assembly, and many students and parents do not feel the high school is currently a safe environment for their students. That is an unconscionable situation for this public high school.

Jewish and Muslim religious leaders have met with school officials in efforts to create understanding and unity in the face of antisemitism and Islamophobia, and there are efforts for further education within the district. But the harm, right now, is done. And a simple band aid will not provide the panacea necessary to heal this fractured district.

At a special board of education meeting called to help facilitate communications between the board, administration and the community, it was overwhelmingly clear that the divide between the Jewish and Islamic communities are immense – despite speaker after speaker relaying that prior to the assembly most members felt comfortable, even were friends, with members of other religions. What has been also immensely obvious is that the current administration is clueless as to how they got into their current situation, and how to competently get out.

Despite superintendent Pat Watson's obvious enthusiasm for education and the district, as issues have arisen during his tenure, he has often been the Invisible Man – providing email statements to families, faculty and the press, but failing to communicate directly with those of us who speak for you – as the media, we get denials from spokespersons, are told he's unavailable, busy, occupied. We have been unable to communicate directly with other administrators or principals – Bloomfield Hills Schools has tried to micromanage their image and communications. But reality always seeps through the cracks, until, as in March 14, the dam breaks, and they are unprepared for the flood.

Perhaps a superintendent who had come up through an administration, rather than directly from working as a principal, would have had the experience to appreciate the importance of transparency. Transparency is critical at every point. Total cohesiveness amongst the student body may be an impossibility for this school year, but it must be the long-term goal, and Watson, Bloomfield Hills High School Principal Lawrence Stoughter, assistant superintendents, school board members and parents must find a way to at least achieve collaboration, consensus and harmony among the study body, much less the community.

It is imperative for both the students and for everyone who lives in the Bloomfield Hills Schools district.


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