Muslim students stage walkouts in Fairfax high schools over Gaza war

Students at McLean High School walked out Friday morning as part of wider effort by students across the county to show support for Palestinians and call for aid to be sent to Gaza. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Karina Elwood.

Hundreds of students walked out of Fairfax County high schools this week in support of Palestinian civil rights and a cease-fire in the Gaza conflict in what they deemed a “Humanitarian Walkout Week.”

Students from at least ten high schools planned and held walkouts, most of which were organized by Muslim Student Associations and held during free periods to limit classroom disruption. Walkouts were planned at Annandale, Edison, Falls Church, John R. Lewis, Justice, Oakton, McLean, Mount Vernon, South County and Woodson High Schools, and Lake Braddock Secondary School.

Students gathered outside draped in Palestinian flags, leading chants through megaphones. At Oakton High School, students massed on the football field to write the names of those killed in Gaza on their forearms in black marker. At McLean High School, the group carried a large banner reading “cease fire now” as they marched around the school.

In the weeks following the deadly Hamas attack on Israel, tensions between pro-Palestinian and pro-Israel students have risen across the country. Dozens of universities and colleges held walkouts this week.

In Fairfax, student activists in K-12 schools sought to make their voices heard, too, as a generation of politically engaged teens organized walkouts across the county. Protests are commonplace in the state’s largest school district. Students walked out in 2022 following the mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Tex., and again that fall to protest Gov. Glenn Youngkin’s (R) model policies for the treatment of transgender students.

At Oakton High School on Tuesday morning, students embraced and cried as their Palestinian peers shared stories. The organizers said in an interview that they were thrilled that about 200 of their classmates came to support their cause.

“Everyone’s not going to be freed by a high school walkout, but we all have voices. And I know we have a ton of Palestinians that have those stories, that have those things that people don’t hear about every day,” said Lina Noory, president of the school’s Muslim Student Association. “We’re just high school students at the same time, so I think it was just really good at not only informing them, but giving opportunities to share your own stories.”

At Oakton, organizers said their administration had been largely supportive of letting students demonstrate on campus, regardless of their position. Fairfax County Public Schools policy allows students to protest and exercise their First Amendment rights, “as long as it is done respectfully, does not interfere with the rights of others, and does not disrupt learning in the school.”

The school district does not maintain data on the religious demographics of students. But according to data from the Association of Religion Data Archives, which uses the number of religious congregations and their memberships to calculate religious diversity in an area, about 0.7 percent of the population in Fairfax County practiced Judaism in 2020, while about 5.9 percent reported practicing Islam.

Fairfax County Public Schools did not comment specifically on the walkouts, but Superintendent Michelle Reid sent a letter to families on Oct. 10 addressing the conflict.

“Our primary concern is the well-being and emotional health of our students and staff,” Reid wrote in the letter. “We are resolutely committed to maintaining a safe, welcoming, and respectful space for our students and staff, and to provide support for students, staff, and families who are struggling at this time.”

While the demonstrations remained largely peaceful this week, some parents, community members and students worried about safety and security for both Muslim and Jewish students on campus. One Palestinian student at Oakton, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for security concerns, said some parents and community members complained about the walkout.

During a school board meeting Thursday evening, another student told the school board that her teacher had referred to Palestinians as terrorists, making her feel silenced at school. And a student at McLean High School said in an interview that some Jewish students and parents were worried about Friday morning’s walkout. The 17-year-old senior emphasized that the protests were intended to be peaceful and advocate for humanitarian aid being sent to Gaza.

“We believe that if we have our voices as a constituency heard, then we can persuade the U.S. into implementing a cease-fire. And that would ultimately be the best for both sides because no one wants to die fighting a war,” the student said.

Guila Franklin Siegel, the associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, said her organization works closely with Fairfax schools and monitored the walkouts this week for safety. Franklin Siegel said she’d heard concerns from Jewish parents and students who were worried about attending school on the day of the walkout and being singled out for not participating, but overall things had gone smoothly.

“We’ve been keeping a close eye on it and we appreciate the principals that have sent out notices ahead of time to prepare their communities for what is going to happen, and reinforce the policies in the code of conduct,” Franklin Siegel said.

Glenn Goldenhorn, an alumni parent, drove to McLean High School on Friday morning to observe the protest. Goldenhorn, who is Jewish, said he wanted to make sure it was peaceful. While he said he did not endorse the walkout and does not agree with the students, he was glad it was done peacefully.

“They walk away feeling that they’re making a contribution and awareness,” Goldenhorn said. “I’m just happy it was safe.”



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