Baasma Mahmood wants to have the tough conversations with her classmates.
The Grade 8 Innisfil Central Public School student says she recently tried to bring up the Israel-Hamas war in class. But she claims to have been told by her teacher that the subject was off limits, on the advice of school leadership, to avoid arguments and potential violence.
“We don’t talk about it at school; we’re not allowed,” she said, a hijab draped over her hair and flowing well past her shoulders. “Some people are supporting Israel. Some people are supporting Palestine. They didn’t want any fights.”
While the Middle East has a long, tenuous and complicated history, this latest war was sparked on Oct. 7, when Hamas militants stunned Israel with hundreds of rockets and sent gunmen into several locations outside the Gaza Strip.
Thousands of people are reported to have died in the conflict, which as of Nov. 30 was subject to a temporary ceasefire. However, the Associated Press says the war has left Northern Gaza in ruins, destroying more than 46,000 homes and leaving many people without basic necessities like electricity, food and clean drinking water.
Mahmood says her passion for the topic developed after watching documentaries and news reports about affected Palestinian children.
“It makes me feel bad for those kids who aren’t being recognized,” she said. “Kids are losing their lives in Palestine for something they didn’t do. I’m hoping we’re allowed to talk about this in schools so everybody has an idea of what’s going on around the world. People in my class don’t even know what’s going on. As a Canadian citizen, freedom of speech is the right to express your beliefs and ideas the way you choose.”
All Mahmood wants, she says, is open dialogue about the issues in a safe space, in hopes of finding solutions and working toward a better understanding of the conflict.
Simcoe County District School Board communications manager Sarah Kekewich declined to comment on this specific case.
“It is unfortunate that we are hearing from the media about a concern we were not aware of,” she said. “Out of respect, and to honour our requirement to protect the privacy of all students, we can’t elaborate on the specifics involving this student’s comments. We will say that students are encouraged to approach their teacher, and their principal, if they would like to discuss sensitive topics and they will be guided on how to best do so in a way that promotes and supports the human rights of all students.”
The board is “committed to creating a culture of belonging and inclusion for all students and staff,” Kekewich said.
“Schools are encouraged to celebrate diversity and engage students and staff in opportunities that build cultural awareness,” she said. “Innisfil Central promotes student voice through a variety of school-based initiatives and leadership opportunities. Most recently, to recognize Islamic Heritage Month, the students were actively involved in delivering the daily school announcements, which included student-led learning and sharing of culture.”
There are numerous resources in place through the board’s human rights and equity office and its diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) department to support staff with navigating sensitive topics. Additionally, the board has a graduation coach for racialized students, as well as social workers from the DEI department who are available to provide individual support, Kekewich said.
The board also recently hosted a responsive dialogue session for students’ parents, guardians and adult family members regarding the conflict at Bradford District High School, which included guest speakers Dr. Barbara Landau and Shahid Akhtar from the Canadian Association of Jews and Muslims.
Mahmood’s mother, Atiya Noor, says she is “so proud” of her daughter, but also took issue with the board’s teaching of subjects like the Holocaust and issues around antisemitism, which she views as biased toward the Israeli state.
“The only thing that I don’t understand is (if) the school is teaching kids not to take sides … (then) why (is) my son’s teacher teaching (the) class about antisemitism?” Noor said. “(Mahmood’s) a very responsible kid. She’s doing the right thing. She wants to have a solution for those kids. This should be discussed in school. It’s not about two nations; it’s about the innocent people.”
The Ministry of Education recently introduced a revision to the Grade 6 social studies curriculum, mandating learning about Holocaust and antisemitism-related issues to students in all Ontario elementary schools, Kekewich said.