Downer’s email violation is an example of the challenges many school districts and colleges locally and nationally have faced responding to the ongoing war. This week, the presidents of Harvard, UPenn and MIT testified before Congress amid criticism that they and other school leaders haven’t done enough to combat rising antisemitism on their campuses.
In Decatur, community members say Downer’s email is part of a persistent problem in the school system that includes the distribution of inaccurate or misleading information, or students experiencing antisemitism.
On Oct. 26, Downer sent an email with an attachment titled “Resources for Learning and Actions to Support Gaza” to several district staff members, according to an investigative report obtained by the AJC.
Downer’s three-page document encourages readers to take one action per day, like contacting representatives to demand a cease-fire or donating to organizations providing aid to Palestinians. It also includes a list of news sources and resources for teachers to use when discussing the war. The document was compiled by a “queer collective of Jews, Palestinians and allies in Atlanta,” it states.
The email came three weeks after Hamas militants attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing about 1,200 people. More than 16,000 people have been killed in Gaza since then, according to the territory’s Health Ministry.
Downer was put on leave after at least one rabbi in the Atlanta area complained that his email shared “incredibly biased” and “inaccurate” resources.
“Mr. Downer’s message is entirely one-sided, and NOT ONCE (sic) does it mention the barbaric slaughter of innocent Israeli civilians by Hamas terrorists on October 7th — the greatest loss of Jewish lives in a single day since the Holocaust,” wrote Rabbi Elana Perry, the director of Jewish education at the Jewish Federation of Greater Atlanta, in an email to Superintendent Gyimah Whitaker included in the internal report. “This is a dismal failure on the part of our school district.”
District officials told Downer the same day they received the email from Perry that they were getting complaints about his message, the report shows.
Downer did not have prior approval to send the email, he told district officials, but used his professional judgment.
“I am not endorsing any side,” he told investigators in one meeting, according to the transcript. “It was not my intent to endorse anything or speak on behalf of this office or district. I give people multiple perspectives with multiple sources.”
Investigators found that Downer caused “discord within the district and within the community” and violated the district’s policy on acceptable internet use, and three others related to professional conduct.
“Mr. Downer did not use the technology resources in support of education, nor was it in line with the mission, goals and objectives of the school system,” Decatur officials wrote.
Born and raised in Norcross, Downer has taught in the Atlanta and Gwinnett school districts. He’s described himself as an “abolitionist educator-organizer.” Downer was a panelist in a February AJC Live discussion for subscribers about the challenges educators face when teaching about race, Black history or antisemitism.
Investigators made three recommendations: First, that Downer be released from his current position or be given clear guidance on how to align with the district’s “student-focused” agenda. Second, they recommended that he be suspended. And third, they recommended that any communications sent by Downer need to be reviewed and only rely on approved resources.
Andrew Lewis, who spoke at the Nov. 14 school board meeting about this and other issues, and whose two children recently graduated from the district, said members of the community have been frustrated at a lack of information on Downer’s case. But they’ve been heartened by the district’s actions on another issue.
Students at Decatur High School are slated to participate in the Model Arab League, a diplomatic simulation and leadership development opportunity. Students were preparing to represent Bahrain, Jordan and Palestine at an upcoming conference in Atlanta.
Lewis and other parents were concerned about the educational resources being used in this case, and the “appropriateness” of the school’s participation at this time. This week, the school’s principal notified those parents that “increasing polarization of the conflict has prompted a thoughtful review” of secondary-level curricula and extracurricular activities. As a result, the school will still participate in the conference, but will not represent Palestine.
“As our school community strives to navigate through change and uncertainty, we want to re-emphasize our resolute commitment to making City Schools of Decatur a school community that fosters respect, love and inclusion for all,” Principal Duane Sprull wrote in an email.
It’s a step in the right direction, Lewis said.
“I would not describe this as everything is hunky-dory and we’re ready to move on,” he said in an interview. “CSD, I think, is paying attention and has the willing desire to want to address these concerns, but there is certainly more work that needs to be done.”