Schenectady students certainly learned a lesson from school administrators last week, but it wasn’t the intended lesson on the Middle East.
It was about how to mismanage an educational message to staff and students, how to exclude people who might have important insight to contribute, how to hide from potential criticism, and how to avoid an open and honest discussion of a controversial and complex issue.
In essence, it was a lesson in poor decision-making and shortsighted leadership.
And it’s something Schenectady school officials need to address and manage in the future, hopefully with the help of a new superintendent versed in dealing with complex cultural, religious and political issues.
It was bad enough that the district, through its “culturally responsive committee,” sent out an inflammatory and one-sided message about the current situation in the Middle East between Israel and the Palestinian people.
The tone-deaf message, sent to staff via email, urged the use of terms that favored one side in the conflict, the Palestinians, and also used language that was both inaccurate and highly offensive to the Jewish people.
Showing no respect to their own educators, the email went so far as to provide district teachers with a list of words to use and not to use in lessons about the topic.
Education is about presenting both sides of an issue fairly and completely, and allowing students to evaluate the facts themselves and draw their own opinions.
This email did the opposite.
Making matters worse was the district’s attempts to obfuscate the whole issue, first by responding slowly to the mounting criticism of its staff and members of the community, and then in its attempts to spin and stonewall our inquiries.
What does that teach the students?
It teaches them to present one side of an issue favored by a few and not to avail oneself of outside resources. And it teaches them that when confronted with a mistake, do your best to sweep it under the rug.
On the issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the district should do what it should have done before it sent out the memo —work with community members and leaders who can offer differing perspectives on the situation and prepare a curriculum that is unbiased and complete.
To ensure that communication like this doesn’t happen again, school officials should endeavor to consult with their own instructors, school board members, administrators and outside sources when necessary before issuing such a staff directive.
At the very least district officials can walk away from this with a lesson in how to address a mistake and how not to make the same one in the future.