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In Combative Hearing, New York School Chief Turns Tables on Republicans

LocalIn Combative Hearing, New York School Chief Turns Tables on Republicans

At a two-hour House hearing on antisemitism in public schools on Wednesday, the New York City schools chief, David C. Banks, made one thing very clear: He was ready to fight.

In an unyielding and fiery tone, Mr. Banks challenged lawmakers and questioned their versions of events. He forcefully denied accusations that the district had poorly responded to hateful incidents. And in several heated exchanges, he unapologetically spoke over members of the House as they asked questions.

As the leader of the nation’s largest school system, Mr. Banks also acknowledged — often — that hate speech and harassment are a major problem for the district. He told members of an education subcommittee in the House that officials have disciplined about a dozen staff members and school leaders, and suspended at least 30 students.

But Mr. Banks also seemed unafraid of wading into a sustained back-and-forth with lawmakers that many witnesses generally seek to avoid when testifying before Congress. In doing so, he sidestepped some of the pitfalls that have haunted college presidents called to give their own testimony before House Republicans on antisemitism. The presidents of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania were accused of being too cautious and lawyerly late last year, while the president of Columbia was criticized by some for being too conciliatory in a hearing last month.

At the center of several exchanges on Wednesday between Mr. Banks and Republicans was a high-profile demonstration at Hillcrest High School in Queens last fall, during which students filled the halls in a raucous protest after a Jewish educator posted a message of support for Israel on social media.

House Republicans questioned Mr. Banks multiple times over the episode. Mr. Banks told them that the principal at Hillcrest had been removed from the school but acknowledged that he still worked in the main offices of the city’s Education Department.

Representative Elise Stefanik, the New York Republican whose questioning of college presidents at an earlier hearing gained millions of views on social media, interrogated him over the decision not to fire the former principal outright. But even she could not seem to crack Mr. Banks’s composure.

“You said you fired the principal,” Ms. Stefanik said, urging him to “check the testimony.”

“I never said I fired the principal of Hillcrest — you check the record,” Mr. Banks countered.

(Both were, to some degree, technically correct. Ms. Stefanik’s colleague, Representative Lisa McClain, Republican of Michigan, had asked, “So you fired the people?” Mr. Banks replied, “Yes, we remove people, absolutely.” )

The chancellor’s demeanor stood out in stark contrast to last month’s congressional testimony by Columbia University’s president, who at times sought to placate lawmakers. That approach won some praise, including by at least one Republican. But back home, she faced intense blowback and an escalating crisis.

Mr. Banks chose a different playbook.

At one point, Representative Brandon Williams of New York, a Republican, scolded the chancellor for failing to take stronger action after the demonstration at Hillcrest, which Mr. Banks attended in the 1970s. Mr. Williams said that the former leader of the school, which the congressman described as “open season on Jews’ high school,” should have no place in local education.

“How can Jewish students feel safe?” Mr. Williams asked. “How can Jewish students go to school knowing that he is still on your payroll?”

“I know whose payroll it is,” Mr. Banks shot back.

“And it’s not ‘open season on Jews’ school,” the chancellor continued, defending his alma mater. “It’s called Hillcrest High School.”

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