NEW YORK — An investigation is underway at Hillcrest High School, where an undetermined number of students have been suspended after storming the hallways to target a Jewish teacher who had attended a pro-Israel rally, education officials announced Monday.
The episode was blasted by Schools Chancellor David Banks at a later afternoon press conference as “completely unacceptable.” Mayor Eric Adams said the event was motivated by “ignorance-fueled hatred.”
An estimated 400 teens in Queens flooded the Hillcrest corridors Nov. 20 to protest the staffer, who shared a photo of herself online at a demonstration off school premises, according to viral social media videos. The disturbance forced a lockdown, while the teacher was moved to another floor of the building to meet with police.
“A teacher at Hillcrest High School was targeted based on her support for Israel,” Banks told reporters at the school, “expressed in a permissible way outside of school hours, and her Jewish identity.
“And that is completely unacceptable that she would be targeted for that, and I said that to the students as well as the staff here today.”
The original videos of the protest appeared to have been deleted by Monday morning, though recordings were reviewed by the Daily News.
“When a protest brakes (sic) out because a teacher stands with Israel,” read one of the since-removed videos on TikTok, as students charged through the hallways, jumping up and down, and showed a water fountain torn from the wall.
“POV: your school had 1 lockdown multiple fights and riots js bc of a teacher that chose to wake up one day and choose … Zionism and occupation,” read another clip on the platform.
The caption included a threat: “YO IF HER A** COME BACK IN THAT BUILDING,” followed by a skull death symbol and praying hands emojis.
“Hillcrest high school had a riot because a Health teacher was supporting Israel,” read another, depicting at least two students holding Palestinian flags.
The Jamaica school had to go on lockdown during the protest, according to an email Tuesday from Principal Scott Milczewski to staff obtained by The News. He said additional police and school safety agents were present, while deans had their teaching posts covered to focus on the events.
“A lot of these students, they didn’t know what they were doing at the moment,” said Senior Class President Muhammad Ghazali.
A photo of the teacher, reshared by students on TikTok, shows her at a rally with the sign “I stand with Israel” and surrounded by other demonstrators holding Israeli flags. She posted it to her Facebook profile weeks before the school demonstration. It was later picked up by students.
Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, told The News in a statement that the union had been working with the individual teacher since last Monday “to restore and maintain a safe environment for faculty, students and staff.”
Queens Borough President Donovan Richards, who had just traveled to the region a couple of weeks ago, said the people he spoke with in Gaza there wanted peace, compared with protesters in New York.
“That message somehow is being lost in our city,” he said.
Banks, a Hillcrest alum who has visited the school multiple times as recently as a few weeks ago, placed much of the blame on social media.
Some schools have shied away from addressing the war, while he said teens consuming information on TikTok felt a “kindred spirit” with many of the Palestinian families they saw dying. More than 30% of the student body is Muslim, the chancellor said.
Banks announced that he planned to convene the principals of all grade levels across the city for a Zoom meeting later this week to direct schools to have productive discussions.
“The goal is to encourage the schools to have responsible conversation,” he said, “not to run away from the issue, not to hide from it. Because the kids are being consumed with information every day anyway, whether you like it or not. So you can’t put your head in the sand and act like it’s not happening.”
The chancellor pushed back against any suggestions that the students had been “radicalized.” He met with a couple hundred teachers and 70 students on Monday, according to his and a teacher’s estimates, respectively.
The incident came just weeks after an initial tally of 770 public school students walked out of class on Nov. 9 to demand an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.
“The vile show of antisemitism at Hillcrest HS was motivated by ignorance-fueled hatred, plain and simple,” said Adams on Saturday, “and it will not be tolerated in any of our schools, let alone anywhere else in our city. We are better than this.”
Adams said a local organization will begin outreach with students at Hillcrest this week “to ensure they understand why this behavior was unacceptable.”
The teacher is expected to return back to the school later this week, the chancellor said.