The U.S. Department of Education is investigating Edina Public Schools over alleged discrimination, months after two Muslim students were suspended for using a pro-Palestinian slogan while protesting the Israeli war in Gaza.
The two students — Somali American girls who participated in a student walkout in support of Palestinians in October — each received a three-day suspension for chanting, "From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free."
Attorney Bruce Nestor announced Nov. 27 that he had filed a civil rights complaint against the school district on behalf of the suspended students. Speaking alongside members of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, Nestor said the complaint was filed to defend students wanting to engage in speech in support of Palestinians, adding that "we will not stand for a double standard that punishes Muslim students."
Jaylani Hussein, executive director of CAIR-MN, said the student walkout was held because Edina schools released a statement on Oct. 7 acknowledging Jewish students' pain without acknowledging Muslim students' pain or issuing another statement after the Israeli bombing campaign began in Gaza.
The Department of Education opened the Title VI investigation into Edina Public Schools on Jan. 30, according to the department's website. A spokesperson said the department does not discuss ongoing investigations.
But an online list of investigations into schools and colleges shows it's in regards to alleged "national origin discrimination involving religion." The list of schools under investigation was posted in November as part of the Biden-Harris administration's efforts to address a nationwide rise in reports of antisemitism, anti-Muslim bias and other forms of discrimination.
Hussein said Monday that the organization is encouraged by the development.
"This is what we've been looking for," Hussein said about the investigation launching. "Obviously, the department does not investigate every claim that comes in, so I think even though they're not making a decision yet, we definitely welcome the seriousness that they're taking this issue."
In a statement, Edina Public Schools said it has "unwavering support for students' First Amendment right to free expression and to peacefully advocate for causes that are important to them." But it also noted there are "strong policies" prohibiting discrimination.
The statement later added that while it cannot discuss particular allegations, students "do not have unfettered First Amendment rights while on school property" or have a right to engage in speech that's "substantially disruptive or that violates District policies."
"Edina Public Schools deeply condemns islamophobia and antisemitism," the statement read.
The "river to the sea" slogan refers to the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea. Many Jews consider the slogan to be antisemitic and cite Hamas using it to call for Israel's destruction.
"There are other ways to express support for Palestinians that don't invoke the genocide of Jews," Ethan Roberts, deputy director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, said in November, adding that "it's almost like it's intentionally hurtful. If I knew language I used is hurtful to other people, even if it's not my intent, I'd avoid using that language."
Others, such as Hussein, interpret it differently and reject that it's antisemitic.
"Implying that their statements of aspiration for freedom for Palestinian people is somehow anti semitic is very false," he said.
Star Tribune staff writer Reid Forgrave contributed to this report.