The Jewish parents in Central Bucks concerned about antisemitism got what they wanted on Dec. 6 at the school district’s reorganization board meeting.
Four board members, President Dana Hunter, Karen Smith, Tabitha Dell’Angelo and Mariam Mahmud, made statements condemning antisemitic remarks made at the November meeting. Central Bucks Superintendent Abram Lucabaugh did the same.
At the board’s prior meeting, a Doylestown man named Art Larson spoke during the public comment period and compared Jews to the Mafia, said the Anti-Defamation League had Mafia ties and that former Israel Prime Minister Menachem Begin called Jews “a master race,” a quote that is not corroborated. In the days after Larson spoke, four CB school board members at the time, Smith, Jodi Schwartz, Lorraine Sciuto-Ballasy and Tracy Suits, sent out a statement to the community condemning the comments.
But a group of at least 50 Jewish parents in the district wanted the other board members to join them.
The Dec. 6 meeting was to swear in new board representatives. One holdover from the previous board, Hunter, joined her former colleagues, three of whom are no longer on the board, in making statements against hate. Dell’Angelo and Mahmud are newly elected members.
Jewish parents wanted the board and school leadership to come out against antisemitism because they believed it would curb what they saw as a district culture that permitted hate.
Board member Leigh Vlasblom, in particular, was criticized for making exaggerated comparisons between COVID restrictions and Nazi discrimination and for saying that the district needed to reconsider how it decided whether to give off on Jewish and other religious holidays.
Another speaker at the last meeting, a Jewish Buckingham resident named Ed Mackouse, made comments against allowing transgender women to use the women’s bathroom. But the meeting offered an indication that the district wanted to move forward.
“I do not condone comments which target students, staff members, community members or board members due to their race, color, religion, gender, gender expression, age, national origin, disability, marital status, sexual orientation or military status,” Smith said to the assembled crowd of about 70 people in Doylestown. “The previous sentence is essentially the federal non-discrimination statement.”
The crowd applauded after the rest of Smith’s statement, which she ended by saying, “I stand with you,” to students who don’t feel safe. Public comments followed, and many concerned Jewish parents and students spoke during the two-hour session.
They said they were happy that district leadership spoke out against hate speech. But they also said it took too long.
Jewish Central Bucks East High School student Lily Freeman spoke first with her parents behind her at the podium.
“The fact that it took the board this long to make a statement about the violent nature of these words is telling me and other students that we are not safe in this district,” she said. “Adults are supposed to be our role models.”
Later, Plumstead Township mom Dawn Haaz, who is also Jewish, talked about how excited her first-grade son was to share his Chanukah knowledge with his non-Jewish classmates.
“I grapple with a sense of fear,” Haaz said. “As I know it is only a matter of time that his innocence will be shattered by the realities of antisemitism.”
The new board voted to limit public comment to two hours due to the number of people at the packed meeting. Many more residents, Jews and non-Jews, lined up outside beforehand but didn’t get in due to limited seating.
Several parents and students asked for a change of venue to Central Bucks West High School to accommodate the crowd, but board members chose to keep the meeting at its usual location of the CB administration building on Welden Drive.
Despite limiting the public comment period, though, the board allowed every speaker their three minutes. Commenters had to sign up beforehand.
Larson attended the meeting and listened to many speakers criticize his previous comments. But he did not get a chance to go up to the podium himself. However, at the board’s next meeting, the public comment list will pick up where it left off.
Many speakers, Jews and non-Jews, defended Larson’s right to speak but not his comments. They implored the board to not allow a condemnation of hate speech to go too far and limit the First Amendment right to free speech.
“These are inalienable rights. You have no authority to interrupt or interfere with them,” said Mara Witsen, a Jewish resident of Central Bucks. “As a community, those of us with common sense and decency must stand against those who wish to rid our nation of the right to free speech.”
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