Managing Conversations About The Middle East: An Interview with Clifton Public School Superintendent Dr. Danny Robertozzi

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In light of the recent student-led demonstration for solidarity with Palestine, on Friday November 17, 2023 at the Clifton High School (CHS) campus, The Clifton Times reached out to Dr. Danny Robertozzi Ed. D., Superintendent of the Clifton Public School District, to ask how our public schools are handling the conversations around the Israel-Hamas conflict and the threats of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia in our area, in the wake of the October 7, 2023 attacks in Israel and the subsequent war between Israel and Hamas.

Robertozzi responded to our questions by email before the Thanksgiving holiday weekend, and we have used his answers as the basis for this article.

Anti-Semitism and Islamophobia on Campus: While schools and universities in our area are reporting a concerning rise in antisemitic and Islamophobic events, Robertozzi was happy to report that the Clifton Public School District has not had any issues at all. He quoted CHS Principal, Ahmad Hamdeh, as saying that Clifton has always been a melting pot of diverse and accepting students.

Robertozzi added, “We have not seen any concerning levels of tension or conflict arising on our campuses so far. Our counselors, administrators, and district diversity & inclusion team are on alert to address any issues around religious, cultural, or political differences that may emerge in a sensitive, thoughtful manner.

We will continue encouraging open communication and providing our staff with the training and support they need. By fostering a culture of empathy and critical thinking, we believe we can maintain a positive, inclusive environment even amidst challenging world events.”

School Resources: The attacks on October 7, 2023, when Hamas terrorists crossed into Israel and carried out brutal attacks on civilians, sent shockwaves throughout our community. The Clifton School District sent out letters to staff on October 9, 2023 (from Assistant Superintendent Mark Gengaro) and to the broader school community on October 12, 2023 (from Superintendent Robertozzi) calling for the Clifton community to stand united and support one another in the face of the violence and loss. Clifton also made the school counseling team available to provide support and resources to any students, staff members, or families struggling to process the recent events, and reminded people to report anything concerning violence or intimidation. Clifton schools use the See Something Say Something platform for anonymous reporting.

Gengaro wrote, “While violence and conflict, such as the situation that occurred over the weekend, often feel senseless, we are confident that by coming together as a school community, we can stand together in unity and support one another. We must always maintain our confidence in the power of understanding and the impact of human connection.”

The Clifton High School Protest: The demonstration at CHS on November 17, 2023 was put together independently by students who wanted to do something on a global day of action called ‘Shut It Down for Palestine!’ which took place in hundreds of cities in dozens of countries around the globe. Robertozzi noted that this event was not planned by CHS staff and was student-led.

Hamdeh was present and accessible to the protesting students. He and others at the school worked proactively with the student organizers to establish guidelines, like keeping signs respectful, so they could express their perspectives without disrupting school activities. Robertozzi told us that Hamdeh’s guidance was invaluable, given his knowledge of Middle Eastern culture and empathy for the students’ feelings surrounding this issue.

Robertozzi explained that the Clifton School District aims to empower students by creating designated spaces for peaceful protest and actively listening to their concerns. The goal is to have students feel comfortable engaging with global affairs while learning the values of civic discourse and considering multiple viewpoints. By setting clear expectations and having administrators like Mr. Hamdeh directly engage with the students, the school maintained an orderly, constructive environment for this demonstration.

Educating Our Students To Think Critically On Global Issues: The Clifton Times asked how the Clifton Public School District was providing age-appropriate support for students who may be hearing problematic content from TikTok and other platforms, or perhaps even at home or in their communities, to contextualize the conflict and also assist with critical thinking and media literacy.

Robertozzi responded, “In today’s hyper-connected world, students are exposed to a great deal of information from social media, peer groups, and other sources outside of school. As educators, we recognize our responsibility to help students process, analyze, and contextualize what they see and hear around complex global events like the conflict in the Middle East.

Our district takes a multi-pronged approach to build students’ critical thinking and media literacy skills. In age-appropriate ways, our teachers work to provide historical background, geopolitical context, and space for measured dialogue around current issues. We also have an excellent media literacy curriculum that empowers students to examine sources, detect biases, and verify information.

Outside of core academics, our counselors are available to help students unpack misinformation or challenging viewpoints they may encounter. We find opportunities for discussions of real-world issues in a thoughtful, caring setting.

While we cannot shield students completely from harmful content, we can equip them with the tools to face it. By building their capacity for critical thought and empathy, we hope to nurture engaged citizens ready to take on complex challenges in our interconnected world.”

The Clifton Times thanks Dr Robertozzi for his time and efforts in answering our questions, and in keeping our community united and equipped for the kind of conversations that are so crucial in these challenging times. Please continue to look out for one another. We are #OneClifton!

For more resources on talking to your family about the conflict, please see HERE, and remember that information available online through platforms like TikTok, Instagram, and YouTube may be biased, so parents should keep an eye on the content their students are consuming, and have age-appropriate conversations with them about what they’re seeing.



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