Olney, Maryland's William Farquhar Middle School, part of Montgomery County Public Schools
Olney, Maryland's William Farquhar Middle School, part of Montgomery County Public SchoolsRobb Hill for The Washington Post via Getty Images

Two Jews affiliated with Montgomery County Public Schools wrote an opinion piece earlier this month with a warning: If their school district didn’t start doing a better job addressing antisemitism, it could become the target of a federal Title VI investigation.

Now, based entirely on the details of their piece, the Department of Education has indeed launched such an investigation into the populous and diverse suburban Maryland district. It’s one of three new investigations by the department’s Office of Civil Rights announced this week, joining others at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and Eden Prairie Public Schools in Minnesota.

But the piece’s actual authors had nothing to do with the federal complaint. Instead, unbeknownst to them, a non-Jewish conservative activist more than 200 miles away named Justin Samuels filed the complaint with the department and cited the op-ed as his evidence.

“This is news to me,” Margery Smelkinson, a Jewish parent of four in the district and one of the opinion piece’s co-authors, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency when reached for comment about the investigation on Monday.

Smelkinson and Lisa R. Miller, a Jewish teacher in the same district, cited multiple allegations of antisemitism in the Feb. 2 piece they wrote for MoCo360, a hyperlocal news site. They wrote that the district sent a “whispered and mealy-mouthed” message to families after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel; that administrators had condoned a pro-Palestinian student walkout laced with antisemitic chants; that some educators have suggested the attacks were fabricated; and that Jewish students have faced Holocaust denial and comments like “Hitler should have killed more Jews” from their peers.

The district’s failure to address these incidents, they wrote, “poses a potential legal risk under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.” The law prohibits discrimination at federally-funded institutions across a number of categories, including “shared ancestry.” Since Oct. 7, Title VI has also served as a popular avenue for activists to push for investigations concerning alleged antisemitism at colleges and K-12 schools. The Department of Education has opened dozens of such investigations since that date based on similar complaints.

Yet Samuels, a conservative screenwriter in New York, was the one who actually filed the complaint against Montgomery County’s district. The government opened its investigation Monday, according to a letter from the education department.

“As an advocate for equality and justice, I am deeply troubled by the documented cases of discrimination that have occurred,” Samuels wrote in his complaint. He shared a copy of the complaint letter and the department response with JTA.

“Montgomery made no apparent efforts to ensure the safety of Jewish students,” Samuels told JTA when asked why he filed the complaint. “This is a case where it clearly needs federal intervention to put procedures in place to protect Jewish students and to ensure no group is left out of Title VI.”

Representatives for the school district did not return JTA requests for comment. The Department of Education does not comment on active investigations, but says they are not an indication of a complaint’s merit.

Samuels is Christian (he claims distant Sephardic Jewish ancestry), and says his larger goal in targeting campus antisemitism is to go after diversity, equity and inclusion programs, known as DEI.

“The way I think of it, the way to confront discrimination, including antisemitism, is to get rid of that across the board,” he told JTA. “By its nature, DEI violates civil rights laws on multiple accounts, not just on antisemitic or Jewish issues. So I basically say, get rid of DEI.”

The Montgomery County investigation is the third Samuels personally has triggered, after complaints at The New School in New York City and the University of California, Davis, neither of which he has any personal connection to. He has separately filed lawsuits at a number of institutions to challenge policies related to affirmative action and gender-based admissions: for example, he has sued Bryn Mawr College, the historic women’s school, for not admitting men.

Samuels is one of a growing number of political actors, often on the right, who have taken an interest in filing Title VI antisemitism complaints. Other individuals who have filed similar complaints include Zachary Marschall, the Jewish editor-in-chief of the conservative publication Campus Reform, who has filed 21 complaints and prompted eight investigations to date. Sometimes, as in Samuels’ cases, the complaints are filed and investigations opened without consulting the Jewish students at the schools themselves — which is allowed under Department of Education guidelines.

Smelkinson said that, regardless of who filed the complaint, a Title VI investigation at the Washington, D.C.-area district could benefit Jewish families there. The county has the largest Jewish population in the state; 10% of its residents, or around 100,000 people, are Jewish, according to some estimates.

“The details in the piece provide validation for Title VI for sure,” she said. “I don’t really know if it matters so much who filed it or not.”

An infectious disease scientist at the National Institutes of Health who was an outspoken opponent of school mask mandates after the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, Smelkinson is part of the leadership of the Maryland Jewish Alliance, a local advocacy group that looks to spread awareness of antisemitism. Her piece cites reporting by the conservative news outlet The Daily Wire, but she told JTA her group’s members have also experienced antisemitism firsthand in the district.

Members of the group have testified about antisemitism at school board meetings, trying to pressure administrators to take action. Administrators have suspended some district teachers who engaged in conduct including signing emails with the controversial anti-Israel phrase “From the river to the sea”; those actions have triggered a lawsuit from the Council on American Islamic Relations, a Muslim-affairs group, even as the local Jewish Community Relations Council pushed the district to go further and investigate the teachers more intensely before reinstating them. The district has faced other controversies recently, including criticisms that it mishandled several misconduct complaints against a middle school principal.

Beyond the suspensions, Smelkinson said the district has not responded forcefully enough to the antisemitism problem and will not engage Jewish parents on the issue.

“There’s a lot of egregious antisemitism happening and they just do not seem to care,” she said. She hoped to use the specter of Title VI to push for change but had not yet planned to file any complaints herself. Requests for comment to Miller, the Jewish district teacher and co-author of the op-ed, were not returned.

Despite some concerns that an investigation triggered by an outsider could be “not as rigorous” as one “working with somebody on the ground,” Smelkinson still had optimism Samuels’ complaint would be good for local Jewish parents.

“If it happens, and it can improve the system for Jewish students and staff, I am for it,” she said. “They don’t seem to be hearing us in our calls and our letters and testimony, and if this is what it takes, then so be it.”

Representatives for UMass Amherst and Eden Prairie Public Schools did not immediately return JTA requests for comment on their own Title VI investigations. In November, a UMass student was arrested after punching a Jewish student at a vigil for victims of the Oct. 7 attacks and was swiftly condemned and banned from campus by the administration.