The story of the controversial map at Autrey Mill Middle School’s Multicultural Night captivated readers’ attention and confused many. Now, nearly a month after the initial story broke, the AJT spoke to several community leaders to discuss what happened, the fallout from the incident and lessons for the future.
Tempers flared when a map depicting Palestine instead of Israel was displayed at the Alpharetta school’s Multicultural Night March 7.
Edward Ahmed Mitchell, attorney and executive director of the Georgia chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, represented several of the families involved and spoke with school officials on March 26.
“We are pleased with where things are, and as far as we’re concerned the situation is resolved,” Mitchell said. “We met with school leadership yesterday and I have been in communication with a few local rabbis and I met with one earlier this week.”
Fulton County Schools Chief Academic Officer Clifford Jones concurred with that assessment, saying in a statement to the AJT that after Mitchell’s productive meeting with school officials, the school considers the matter resolved.
Rabbi Michael Bernstein from Gesher L’Torah said that he’d spoken with several of those involved, including school administrators.
“One of the lessons is that there was a response immediately, but there was a lot of controversy and misinformation initially,” Bernstein said. “It’s a lot harder to get into the mind of people and try to guess their intentions than to proactively discuss the situation.”
Many were surprised to learn in Mitchell’s initial March 12 press conference that his clients had emails from representatives of the school approving the display. He confirmed to the AJT that he had the emails but would only have shared them publicly if the school had disputed what he’d said.
He also explained the three major outcomes from his meeting.
“Number one: The school plans to continue meeting with all concerned community members to gather their thoughts and hear their opinions to figure out what they’re going to do with multicultural night,” he said. “Leadership have assured me that whatever they do will involve equal treatment of everyone under the law and that no speech will be favored over other speech.”
Secondly, the school assured Mitchell that none of the children involved with the map of Palestine display will be punished, which he said would not be legally possible. Finally, bullying of the students involved has ceased and the families have confirmed that everything has calmed down.
“The kids are fine, and they and their families will be meeting with the principal [Trey Martin] soon to clear the air in a positive way,” he said. “Obviously the way that it happened was very distressing for a variety of reasons, but what happened, and what matters now is the future.”
In terms of takeaways for the future, Mitchell explained that local Muslim and Jewish communities are already communicating about what happened and discussing how it might be handled differently next time.
“They’re discussing ways to collaborate and work together,” he said. “Obviously when it comes to Israel and Palestine, we all have strong feelings and I doubt we’re all going to agree on it, but we can agree on the importance of engaging in interfaith dialogue and countering hate speech and hate crimes, and that’s something we can do together.”
Ilise Cohen, who spoke at Mitchell’s initial press conference as a representative of Jewish Voice for Peace’s Atlanta chapter, explained that she was glad to hear that the school and families had been in touch, and that it was important to continue working to protect “the rights of students to share their identities and cultures.”
She voiced her support for CAIR’s work supporting the family and engaging with the school district and also working to “prevent further acts of bigotry and bullying.”
“As I said in the press conference, these kinds of moments should be an opportunity for learning and connecting to one another,” Cohen said. “Free speech is one of the values we must cherish most. … It is what emerges from this kind of connection that highlights our humanity.”
Rabbi Hirshy Minkowicz sees the whole incident as a learning experience.
“As the school principal so correctly explained to me, … whereas in the past there was no need to check in displays brought in from parents for events as these, we now know that we are living in different times and extra vigilance is needed, … to check and approve before being out in an open forum.”
Moving forward, Bernstein believes a more guided strategy is necessary.
“There is a place to give people a sense of the culture itself,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for people to see and learn without creating actual conflict in that moment.”
As for future multicultural nights, Jones said that the school is focused on celebrating the rich diversity of the community and bringing the community together.
“The school continues to gather input from the community, including many of the rabbis in the area, about future multicultural events. … The multicultural event is only one night, and our goal is to work toward that partnership for the entire 180 days of school and throughout the year,” Jones said.