Members of the Oakland Unified School District board, student directors, and Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell sit on stage during the Nov. 8, 2023 school board meeting. Credit: Ashley McBride

The Oakland Unified School District is among the local government boards considering a resolution addressing the ongoing war in Gaza. 

But just like other cities and school districts that are grappling with the issue, fissures are emerging in the OUSD community. The possibility the school board will issue an official stance has sparked debate about what the district’s message should be, or if OUSD should weigh in at all. 

The board was expected to introduce a resolution this week from Director Valarie Bachelor acknowledging the Oct. 7th Hamas attack on Israel, mourning the loss of lives in Israel and Palestine, and calling for a ceasefire, the release of all hostages, and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza. The resolution further encourages educators and staff to learn about the history of the conflict and foster discussions in their classrooms, and combat antisemitism and Islamophobia.

Dozens of students, teachers, families, and community members filled the Great Room at La Escuelita on Wednesday night, most of them to support the resolution. But soon after the meeting began, attendees objected to the limited public comment allowed under the board’s normal rules, leading to disruption as some shouted at the school board directors. Board President Mike Hutchinson called a recess and then adjourned the meeting shortly before 7 p.m., leaving most of the agenda untouched. 

As of Nov. 9, Israeli strikes on Gaza have killed more than 10,000 Palestinians, including thousands of children. The air strikes and an Israeli ground invasion, still in its early phases, are in direct response to the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, who killed 1,400 Israelis and took more than 200 hostages, according to news reports. In recent days, a growing number of humanitarian organizations have called for ceasefires and to allow aid into the region. On Thursday, it was reported that Israel will allow daily pauses in its attacks to allow Palestinians to flee south of Gaza City. 

In the weeks since Oct. 7, thousands of Bay Area residents have participated in protests calling for a ceasefire and end to Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands and demonstrations supporting Israel and demanding hostages be released. 

Some people want to see local leaders, governments, schools, and other organizations take positions on the conflict. Others feel this is not appropriate, or that statements about the conflict will alienate some members of the community. 

Community members fill the room for the Nov. 8, 2023 school board meeting when the OUSD board was expected to introduce a resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. Credit: Ashley McBride

“In the last few weeks, the phrase that keeps coming to my mind is ‘an eye for an eye makes the whole world blind,’” Bachelor said during brief remarks at the beginning of Wednesday’s meeting. “These words haunt me and they should haunt all of us during this time. We need to, here and everywhere, ensure children are safe from hatred and harm.”

The proposed OUSD resolution comes two weeks after the board’s student directors made statements urging the district to support peace between Israel and the Palestinians and asking for more education on the conflict.

After Wednesday’s meeting was abruptly adjourned, members of the public who had shown up to speak about the resolution passed around a megaphone to share their views. At one point, the crowd chanted Bachelor’s name. 

“Please stop chanting my name. It’s not about me,” she said. “It’s about the people in Palestine and the people in Israel. We have to stop killing children. We have to stop bombing hospitals. We have to stop bombing U.N. facilities.”

Amina Hakim grew up in San Francisco, attended King Estates Middle School in Oakland, and now lives in San Leandro. She came to the meeting with her daughter to support the resolution. As an early childhood educator, Hakim said she has a Palestinian coworker who has lost family members in the war. 

“We have no privilege to sit down and be quiet. We have to speak up,” she told The Oaklandside after the meeting adjourned. “What brought me and my child here is that we have to be involved in some way. This is the very bare minimum that you can do.”

Margaret Trowe, a candidate from the Socialist Workers Party running for Congress, attended the meeting to speak against the resolution. Trowe added that she graduated from Skyline High School and that she wants the board to “pledge to tell the truth.”

“I want to oppose the resolution, and I want to support telling children in Oakland about what happened in the 20th century, and how it’s happening again,” she told The Oaklandside. “I think working people and their children should defend Israel’s right to exist, condemn what Hamas did on Oct. 8 and understand the seriousness of Jew hatred.” 

Since the meeting was cut short, most in attendance were unable to offer their support or opposition to the resolution.

Who else has weighed in?

On Oct. 27, the Oakland Education Association teachers union issued a statement and voted on a resolution unequivocally standing for Palestinian liberation, calling Israel genocidal and an apartheid state, and calling for an immediate ceasefire.

Some community members found the resolution and statement to be one-sided and insufficiently critical of Hamas. 

The statement, posted on Instagram, was later deleted. In an updated post on Facebook on Oct. 31, OEA leaders wrote that the initial post “did not accurately represent” their resolution and that the organization is committed to listening to members, students, and families on the issue. 

This week, the OEA board approved a resolution encouraging its members to speak up for Palestinian liberation, participate in pro-Palestine demonstrations, and support teachers in providing education about Palestinian liberation in their classrooms. 

Some parents say the union’s actions are dismissive of Jewish students, teachers, and community members who want to see the organization denounce Hamas for its use of terrorist tactics during the Oct. 7 attack inside Israel. 

Seth Schreiberg, a parent at Thornhill Elementary, said that while he values his children’s teachers and OEA representatives at Thornhill, he found the union’s statements hurtful and that framing Israel as the sole aggressor can contribute to antisemitism

“I object to the assignment of moral responsibility for what happened to Israel and the relative downplaying of the role that Hamas played in massacring people on Oct. 7,” he told The Oaklandside. 

Schreiberg said he wants to see OEA leaders listen to those who are speaking up. 

“What I would like is there to be an effort by the OEA board to listen, to go on a listening tour and invite Jewish parents to talk to them,” he said. “The harm is not criticism of Israel or its actions or its counter-offensive or the incredible amount of pain Israel is causing right now. The harm is coming from assigning all moral responsibility [to Israel] for what happened.”

Schreiberg also appreciated the several statements that Superintendent Kyla Johnson-Trammell has made about the conflict, calling for peace in the region, acknowledging the losses, and providing resources for educators and families to talk about the war. 

In an Oct. 30 statement, OUSD’s administration reiterated a commitment to peace, expressed opposition to antisemitism and Islamophobia, and disavowed “the various polarizing statements on the conflict issued by organizations in the OUSD community.”

Jewish families, teachers, and leaders say they plan to hold a news conference on Friday to demand OEA rescind its resolution. The conference includes speakers from the Jewish Community Relations Council and the Anti-Defamation League. 

Judith Klinger, an Oakland resident, veteran educator, and former president of the Alameda Education Association, wrote a letter to OUSD leaders urging them to take advantage of this opportunity to help students engage in critical thinking around a complex issue. Klinger feels that the school district’s role in moments like this is to give students as much age-appropriate information as possible to help kids grapple with the issue in a way that respects people on all sides.

“This is an opportunity not to be wasted. It’s an opportunity to fuel or reduce identity-based hatred,” she told The Oaklandside. “It’s an opportunity to engage the kids in real critical thinking and do all the things that we want education to do. We want our kids to be able to wrestle with things that aren’t simplistic—we don’t want to just say, ‘Here’s the way to think about something.’”

When might the school board vote?

Bachelor’s ceasefire and hostage release resolution could still be introduced at the next OUSD regular board meeting on Nov. 29. At meetings where a resolution is only being introduced, there is no board discussion or public comment on that specific item, but community members could still offer their support or opposition during the general public comment section of the agenda.

Once the resolution has been introduced, it can come back at a later meeting, which could mean weeks or months from now. The slowness of the board’s regular bureaucratic process is one reason school board Director Sam Davis believes the board should instead focus on managing the budget, upgrading school facilities, evaluating the superintendent, and increasing academic outcomes. Davis believes there are other ways school district leadership could address world events and their local impacts beyond issuing resolutions.

“I would love to figure out a way to bring leaders of different communities together to try and have dialogue around this. Board meetings are often not the right place for us to resolve our problems in a calm and considerate manner,” he said. “I’d like to have a smaller conversation where we can address some of those issues and try to figure out what messaging would be helpful from the district.”

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.