Students leave William Wells High School, part of Chicago Public Schools, March 2022.
Students leave William Wells High School, part of Chicago Public Schools, March 2022.Scott Olson/Getty Images

The Department of Education will investigate Chicago Public Schools (CPS) and another K-12 district in Massachusetts, the latest in a flurry of federal probes into discrimination since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war.

Neither district would confirm the reason for its investigation to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. But students in Chicago recently staged a major anti-Israel walkout that received at least tacit support from the district. And at Natick Public Schools, the district in Massachusetts, rabbis and Jewish parents have complained about antisemitism to the school board.

The investigations, under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act, join the more than 70 that the education department’s Office of Civil Rights has opened since the outbreak of the war on Oct. 7. Many of them concern either antisemitism or Islamophobia. Although most of these investigations have involved college campuses, a growing number focus on K-12 districts.

Chicago was the site of a student-led, anti-Israel walkout on Jan. 30. More than 250 students from at least 15 public schools left class and marched to City Hall in support of a city council resolution calling for a ceasefire. The ceasefire resolution passed the next day after Mayor Brandon Johnson cast the tie-breaking vote. Johnson said he was “incredibly proud” of the student protests.

During the walkout, some students carried signs reading, “From the river to the sea, Palestine will be free,” a controversial phrase that some Jewish groups say contend is antisemitic and that has factored into several Title VI investigations to date. Many also advocated for an end to US military aid to Israel. One student told Block Club Chicago, a local news site, that he felt district officials were “somewhat supportive” of the walkout.

In a statement to JTA, a spokesperson for CPS said the district “cannot go into detail about any particular report or investigation due to student and staff privacy protections.” The statement did not refer directly to the walkout. But it did cite the war, antisemitism and Islamophobia.

“As a system, we recognize that the ongoing conflict in the Middle East has led to an increase in anti-Semitic and anti-Muslim incidents,” the spokesperson told JTA in a statement about the investigation. “While CPS actively works to promote student voice and protect students’ constitutional free speech rights, bias-based harm is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.”

There are other signs that the Title VI complaint might concern the walkout. The district told JTA that, since the walkout date, its Office of Student Protections has held training sessions and conversations at schools where walkouts occurred. It also expedited new mandatory Title VI training for its staff following the walkout.

The Jewish United Fund, the city’s Jewish federation, told JTA it didn’t know who prompted the complaint and did not respond to questions about the walkout. A Jan. 31 JUF social media post criticizing the passage of the ceasefire resolution said that “Jewish CPS students” have “been harassed and targets of vandalism and hateful propaganda.”

A spokesperson for Natick Public Schools likewise would not confirm the topic of its investigation to JTA, but noted, “There will be an investigation to assure the district adhered appropriately to protocols utilized to affirm and ensure the civil rights of our students are protected.”

The spokesperson also said that “annual training is mandated for all staff” and that it would cooperate with the investigation.

Natick has been the site of some antisemitic activity since the start of the war, according to a district statement made at a December school board meeting.

“We stand strongly against any efforts to bring hatred into our community, including denouncing in the strongest terms the recent antisemitic symbols that were found in our schools,” the statement said.

Some Jewish parents and a local rabbi also gave public comments at the meeting about recent antisemitism in their district. JTA attempts to reach them Wednesday were unsuccessful.

Several also referenced a controversial statement released Dec. 9 by the Massachusetts Teachers Association, a state teachers union, denouncing “the Netanyahu government’s genocidal war on the Palestinian people in Gaza” and promoting a curriculum that would teach about “the history and current events in Israel and Occupied Palestine.”

The union’s statement was condemned by Jewish groups in the state. At least one chapter of the union, in Newton, denounced it as “antisemitic dog-whistling.” In response, the union’s leadership issued a new statement condemning “the horrific attack of Oct. 7” while continuing to push for a ceasefire.

Chicago and Natick join several other K-12 districts that have become the targets of Department of Education investigations since Oct. 7, including New York City; San Francisco; Oakland; Newark and Teaneck, New Jersey; and Decatur, Georgia. The department doesn’t comment on active investigations or share their origins and also notes that opening an investigation is not a sign the complaint has merit.

The inciting complaints for most of these investigations could not be determined. But they often arrived amid heightened tensions for Jewish parents and families in those districts, including a similar anti-Israel walkout staged in Teaneck and intense anti-Israel activism among teaching staff at San Francisco and Oakland. Other K-12 investigations, including in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and Edina, Minnesota, concern allegations of Islamophobic discrimination.