Editorial: Wheatley School fails an important test

The Island Now

Wheatley School administrators and parents were tested during a commencement speech when a 17-year-old Muslim student whose family is from Pakistan made a questionable claim in calling for her classmates to stand up to injustice around the world.

Sadly, the test did not go well for the school administrators and at least some parents. And their poor performance raises serious questions about racism, free speech, the responsibility of school officials to their students and even commencement speeches entirely.

Let’s start with the response to the speech, which resulted in at least one attendee shouting, “Go back to Pakistan,” according to Ahmed M. Mohamed, the student’s lawyer and legal director at the Council on American-Islamic Relations. Another male adult had to be escorted away by police after becoming aggressive and making physical gestures.

“Immediately after the ceremony was over, two or three men came up to me to tell me my speech was ‘b*llshit’ and ‘a piece of crap,’” said the student, Huda Ayaz, in a letter to the community following her graduation. “They were extremely aggressive and security had to hold them back.”

Some comments posted on the islandnow.com website called Ayaz’s comments anti-Semitic.

We doubt that if Ayaz’s parents had come over on the Mayflower someone would shout for them to go back to England, so we can only conclude that the call to go back to Pakistan was racist.

We would call the comment un-American, but American history is filled with hostility to new immigrant groups – along with the welcoming arms of Lady Liberty in New York harbor.

What set off this reaction?

During her speech on June 20, Ayaz urged her classmates to “speak for those who don’t have a voice and stand up for any injustice that you see. Educate yourself about international dilemmas,” she continued, before adding “including the ethnic cleansings of Palestinians and Uighur Muslims. Families are continuously torn apart and real human lives are being lost but ignored.”

Ayaz’s comments about the Uighur Muslims were correct. At least one million Muslim minority Uighurs are held in Chinese government-run detention centers. President Joe Biden called Chinese President Xi to criticize the abuse of Uighers.

Her comments about the Palestinians were wrong.

There is much legitimate criticism of Israel’s treatment of Palestinians in Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. As there is of the Palestinians.

Emotions were heightened by recent fighting that resulted in the deaths of at least 256 Palestinians, including 66 children, and 13 Israelis, including two children.

But Israel is not engaged in “ethnic cleansing.” Hopefully, Ayaz will follow her own advice to classmates and educate herself further on the subject in college. 

And the comments of a 17-year-old who along with the classmates endured a year of COVID-19 stress should not require police to escort an adult away – no matter the sensitivity of the subject.

We also don’t believe Ayaz’s comments can be called anti-Semitic.

Yes, Israel is a Jewish state, but 20 percent of its population is composed of Arabs. And as a country, it is subject to criticism like any other nation.

In fact, enough Israelis were dissatisfied with the direction of the country that the electorate recently ousted its longtime prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and replaced his coalition with a fragile unity government spanning the political spectrum that included for the first time an Arab party.

It is true that some people criticize Israel as a pretext for anti-Semitism. It is also true that some criticize Israel because they disagree with its policies. 

In Ayaz’s case, she was making comments in the context of issuing a call for social justice. She did not reference Jewish people or even Israel by name. 

More concerning was the response of the Wheatley School and the East Williston School District of which it is a part.

Immediately after the speech, Wheatley Principal Sean Feeney placed the blame on Ayaz in an email sent to parents, saying her speech was not approved and apologizing for its content.

Student speakers at Wheatley’s graduation ceremony were required to submit their speeches to the Graduation Speech Committee. Upon approval, students could make edits and send them back.

“I want to be clear that the injection of such remarks was absolutely inappropriate to the graduation ceremony, as would be any political statements during a celebration solely intended to acknowledge our seniors and their many achievements and accomplishments as members of our Wheatley School community,” Feeney said. “The comments were not part of the approved speech.”

Nowhere in Feeney’s email was there any expression of concern for Ayaz, a 17-year-old Muslim girl who had just graduated from his school and was now being subject to vilification by many adults.

Ayaz’s lawyer also said Feeney’s claim in the email was not true.

Mohamed said the Wheatley School principal confirmed the receipt of a final copy of the student’s remarks and has admitted to Ayaz being at fault for not reading the final draft.

Screenshots of an email from Ayaz provided by her lawyer show Feeney thanking her for sending what Ayaz had referred to as the “final version of my speech” the day before the graduation ceremony.

Several days after throwing Ayaz under the bus, Feeney said in a statement the school did receive the final speech but he did not read it prior to the ceremony.

“I was not informed that the speech had been edited by the student after it had been selected and approved by the Wheatley Speech Selection Committee,” Feeney wrote in a statement released Thursday. “As such, while I did read the approved speech, I did not read the final speech before it was presented during the Wheatley School graduation on Sunday, June 20th.”

We urge the East Williston school district to waste no time in getting to the bottom of how Ayaz’s final draft was handled.

If Ayaz sent her final version to Feeney, why didn’t he read it? Did someone fail to forward the email to Feeney? Or did he simply not read the email he received?

Or did he in fact read the final version and miss Ayaz’s controversial comments? Or did he not have a problem with them until the furor erupted after the speech?

The district also owes an explanation for why it did not defend Ayaz from the vitriol that followed the speech.

“You would think that if an adult tells a student to ‘go back to Pakistan,’ that would be a pretty easy situation for the school district to step in and say, ‘that’s not appropriate, we don’t allow that, we condemn it in the strongest harshest terms possible,” Mohamed said. “It’s really unfortunate to see that there’s a heavy hand when it comes to students, a minor, and this isn’t even a slap on the wrist for the adults.”

We agree.

The closest the district has come in addressing the heated response faced by Ayaz came from East Williston School Superintendent Elaine Kanas in an email sent to parents after Ayaz’s speech.

“As a school district, it is important for us to always provide a safe and supportive environment for all our students and families,” Kanas said.

She then went on to say she and Feeney were discussing the “necessary steps that must be taken to prevent such an upsetting occurrence ever happening again and the importance of swiftly addressing any inappropriate comments, hurtful to others, immediately in the moment.”

This raises the question of what constitutes “inappropriate comments” and what is the problem with upsetting people if that results in persuading them to right a wrong.

Is it wrong for a high school student to call on her classmates to stand up for issues of social justice such as the plight of the Uighur Muslims?

Isn’t that something we would like to see from young people? Isn’t that something that is routinely asked for by elected officials and others at commencement speeches?

Or is it just necessary to steer clear of controversial issues like Israel and the Palestinians? And just who gets to decide what’s controversial?

At some point in our country’s history, the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, gay rights and climate change were controversial. And at least in the case of gay rights and climate change, they still are.

The district should also clarify if it thinks that the commencement ceremony is as Feeney said, “solely intended to acknowledge our seniors and their many achievements and accomplishments as members of our Wheatley School community.”

We’d prefer a commencement ceremony that inspires graduates as they go out into the world to think of others as well as themselves. Even at the risk of offending some people.

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