California yearbook story calls Israel attacks genocide. Complaints, apology & backlash follow

An article in a Sacramento-area high school yearbook about the Israel-Hamas war has drawn the ire of local parents and online criticism from a national organization with the stated mission of fighting antisemitism. In response, the school apologized and is offering either a full refund or stickers to permanently cover it up.

But now the Folsom school is facing additional backlash from the other side, accusing the school of censoring its student writer.

The 200-word article appears in the Vista del Lago High School’s yearbook. It’s printed in the year-in-review section which recalls top news stories. The story, written by senior Habiba Darwish, recounts the Israel-Hamas war from the perspective of the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, highlighting the death of more than 13,000 Palestinian children as of March.

“Since October 8, 2023 over 24,000 Palestinian civilians in Gaza have been killed as a result of bombings from Israel and the United States,” the first sentence reads.

The article detailed the international protests and boycotts in response to Israel’s military actions and referred to them as genocidal. Israel has been accused of genocide by people and organizations worldwide, from student protesters across the United States to the countries of South Africa and Spain, which have each joined a lawsuit against Israel through the International Court of Justice. The Israeli government rejects the allegations.

The yearbook was distributed to students May 20 and 21. Vista del Lago High administration issued an apology and offered refunds to students a few days after a picture of the article gained attention on X (formerly known as Twitter).

Critics of the student’s article were offended by the omission of the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas, which left 1,200 Israelis dead; the 80 Israeli hostages that remain in Gaza; and the lack of a general “Israeli perspective” on the war. Vista del Lago administrators agreed, saying that the article only included “one side of the conflict.”

“A high school yearbook is not the place for a partial perspective on a highly complex issue. The yearbook is a publication intended to represent all students fairly,” stated the May 29 letter from the Vista del Lago administrative team.

Allegations of antisemitism by parents and internet strangers

The high school came under fire on social media on May 24, the day of graduation. The X account of a watchdog organization called Stop Antisemitism posted the article to its 311,000 followers calling out the student writer by name and encouraging its audience to email Principal Kimberly Moore with the group’s concern.

“Vista Del Lago High School student Habiba Darwish ignores the 10/7 Hamas massacre and paints Israel’s defense as a wage of war against Palestinians in the annual yearbook. Where are the adults in the room? Why is this propaganda poisoning allowed to happen?” the post reads.

Darwish has not returned the Bee’s request for comment.

The yearbook article was brought to Stop Antisemitism by concerned students and parents, according to a spokesperson for the organization.

The page regularly calls out individuals who have been critical of Israel, including personal information in their posts. An investigation by the Washington Post found that more than 36 people had been fired or suspended from their jobs after the group revealed comments they made relating to the Israel-Hamas war.

Some say that Stop Antisemitism is holding people to account, others, including several speakers at Folsom Cordova Unified School District’s Thursday board meeting, say that their posts amount to doxing.

How Vista del Lago High School responded to concerned families

Jessica Nielsen, who is a parent of half European-Jewish heritage, said she took issue with the article’s slant and was distressed to see content related to the war in the publication at all.

“It has no place in a high school yearbook whatsoever,” she said.

Vista del Lago administrators responded to concerns like Nielsen’s in the May 29 letter. The email included an apology for “any damage and hurt this has caused our students, families, and the community,” plus a promise to learn and grow from the incident. An administrator expanded on this promise in an email to The Sacramento Bee.

“Principals and leadership are committed to working with all community groups including our Jewish and Muslim students and families most directly impacted by the war, so our campuses and classrooms can be places where all students feel safe to learn and thrive,” said Angela Griffin, Chief Communications Officer at Folsom Cordova Unified.

Griffin said that four families took them up on the offer of blank stickers to cover the page but did not say whether any families chose to return their yearbook for a refund.

The school did not report any disciplinary action against any student or staff member but did promise stricter overview of the yearbook prior to publication.

Article defenders question the school’s responsibility to protect their student

Speakers at Thursday’s school board meeting, the first meeting since this issue arose, largely supported Darwish and the article. Several community members, including Vista del Lago High students and alumni, condemned administration for ceding to critics of the article and for not supporting the student who wrote it as she faces public backlash from strangers on the internet.

Omar Altamimi, senior policy and advocacy coordinator with the Council on American-Islamic Relations, defended Darwish and criticized what he felt was a lack of protection for her by her school.

“It wasn’t until after the backlash started to come in that this disavowal happened,” Altamimi said. “In this email, the school recognized that people felt harmed due to the nature and content of the article itself but … there was never a public condemnation of the targeting of this individual student.”

Darwish also garnered public support from both student board members. Student board member Van Merrill urged the board to establish a procedure for when a student may be publicly targeted by parties outside of the school.

“I think our district needs to take a strong stance against outside organizations attacking our students,” Merrill said. “If I was a student and I saw this Twitter account using my name and garnering support against me to attack me, I would feel isolated. And I think our district needs to make some sort of guideline or procedure about what to do if this happens again.”

The board did not make any decision related to the topic as the issue was not on the agenda, but board member David Reid reported that Jewish parents told him that they and their children are also feeling increasingly unsafe, and directed district staff to address this issue.

What rights do students have as yearbook staff members?

Advocates for Darwish and her article accused the school of retroactively censoring her.

Vista del Lago High School alumnus Luna Lund told the board about how throughout their high school career, they studied literature or film that discussed the censorship of individuals by institutions of power, like Ray Bradbury’s seminal novel “Fahrenheit 451.”

“I was taught that we cannot allow censorship by corrupt institutions to stop us from standing up for what is right,” they said. “So how then can you allow the censorship of a student’s work which was rightfully approved by the yearbook teacher?”

Another speaker at the meeting supported the district’s decision to apologize and offer stickers to cover the article which she said was filled with “charged antisemitic language.”

“Offering people a sticker to cover something in a book they own is not a violation of free speech,” Meg Mar said. “Unfortunately there is a continued push to claim that this student’s rights were somehow violated and to continue to blame the victims of this screed who dared to complain for the results. It sounds familiar because everyone always blames the Jews.”

Offering stickers to cover up the story may not be considered censorship in the eyes of the law, but promising further restrictions in future yearbook review processes could be.

Administrators at Vista del Lago High promised that “the process for yearbook publication will include tighter controls for approval.” They did not provide details about what the approval process will look like next year, but the presence of any sort of administrative approval of yearbook content could be legally problematic.

California is one of 18 states with legislation that protects student journalists, which includes yearbook staff. Education code 48907 affirms the right of student journalists to choose what they publish so long as the content isn’t explicitly obscene, libelous or encouraging students to violate school policy or the law. School staff may request prior review, but can generally not forbid student media from publishing it.

“Maybe they should have had a more balanced argument, but from a legal perspective it seems like the students had a right to publish what they did,” Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel at the Student Press Law Center, said about the situation at Vista del Lago High.

Any increased oversight over the publication that results in students not being able to publish what they want could violate the law.

Hiestand has seen many similar situations in the last several years. The Student Press Law Center recently sent a letter to Glenbrook High School in Illinois supporting the yearbook staff’s right to publish a controversial viewpoint on the war in Gaza. In 2021 and 2022, the Student Press Law Center also supported many yearbook staffs’ right to include content about similarly controversial world news topics, like the COVID-19 pandemic and the 2020 protests of the murder of George Floyd.

Hiestand shared a similar sentiment to the speakers at the board meeting, saying that it is not right for school administrators to “throw students under the bus” in response to backlash.

In a political climate where world events are increasingly polarizing, it is more important to protect the rights of free speech than ever, Hiestand said. He thinks that educators should embrace students’ varied perspectives on polarizing issues and teach them why free speech rights are important to uphold.

“Part of the role of educators is to help (students) learn how to effectively express themselves and to instill in our next generation an appreciation for the First Amendment,” Hiestand said. “And sometimes the speech you need to support is speech that you don’t like.”