"This is a 'blood libel' similar to the blood libels used in the Middle Ages to get people to go out and kill random Jewish people," Horne said of the students' presentation in a Nov. 7 email sent to school districts.
However, according to materials and an audio recording reviewed by Phoenix New Times, the presentation included calls for a ceasefire and mentions of the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack that killed 1,400 people and ignited the war, contradicting Horne's description.
On Nov. 2, student chapters of UNICEF and Amnesty International at Desert Mountain High School organized and led the presentation, which included materials from the two well-known humanitarian organizations.
On Nov. 8, Horne held a press conference during which he not only sharply rebuked the students but also mischaracterized their talk. A day earlier, he labeled the presentation “antisemitic” and “anti-American" and called for kicking UNICEF and Amnesty International "out of their schools (and) off of their campuses" — a ban that likely would violate federal law.
Horne and the Scottsdale Unified School District both provided copies to New Times of what they said are the slides discussed in the meeting at the high school. But the audio recording of the event showed that Horne and the district omitted slides that were, in fact, discussed by the students — slides that showed a more balanced presentation than Horne's description of it.
Horne and the school district didn't include a slide from the meeting that had calls for a ceasefire, which would save lives on both sides of the war.
In his email, Horne also claimed that “in none of this propaganda is there any reference to what happened on Oct. 7.” Yet the audio tape of the presentation, as well as the full slide deck, include at least two mentions of the Hamas terrorist attacks. The presentation called the terrorist attacks “horrific.”
Also missing from Horne and the district’s materials is a slide that said, “At least 200 Israeli hostages taken by Hamas and other armed groups and held in Gaza remain in danger, and ongoing indiscriminate rocket fire into Israel places civilians at risk.” The audio recording showed the students discussed this in the meeting.
In addition, Horne and the district excluded a slide at the end of the presentation that encouraged students to call members of Congress and push them to “secure the safe release and return of hostages held by Hamas.” In the audio tape, the students mentioned elements of the slide but said they were running out of time, as the meeting took place during lunch break.
‘(Horne) knew they were lies’David Chami, a lawyer and board member of the Muslim civil rights advocacy organization CAIR Arizona, was among attendees at a Nov. 15 press conference who criticized Horne's misrepresentation of the presentation and the broadsides leveled at the students who organized it.
“I was shocked to hear the superintendent of public education in the state of Arizona get up in front of the media and tell lies,” Chami said. “He knew they were lies when he said them because he acknowledged having the slides.”
Chami allowed Phoenix New Times to visit his office on Nov. 17 and listen to the audio clip of the student meeting.
A press release from Horne’s office on Nov. 9 included two sets of slides used, while the school district provided New Times with one of those two slide sets.
Kristine Harrington, the district’s communications director, said via email the slides were “verified by a club sponsor.” She also said the district did not have a recording of the meeting.
Horne told New Times on Monday he received the slides he shared from a parent of a student and felt certain they were taken directly from the presentation.
"It doesn't look like what I got was partial. It looks like that was a complete document," Horne said. Yet one screenshot shows 24 total slides when there are only 20 in the materials he publicized.
When asked by New Times if he ever questioned whether what he received showed the full presentation materials, Horne said it "wasn't relevant" because he was told Jewish students felt threatened.
Critics: Horne’s mischaracterization prompted bullyingCritics of Horne took issue with how the superintendent mischaracterized the student presentation.
“He (Horne) went on to claim that our students were anti-American because they called out our government policy of providing billions of dollars in financial and military aid that is being used right now to murder civilians,” Chami said. “Explain to me how it’s anti-American to speak freely and criticize your government.”
In the audio recording of the student session, one presenter added an important nuance, stating that when the speakers note critiques of Israel, “we do not mean the Israeli people, we mean the Israeli government.”
As a result of Horne's and the district’s characterization of the meeting, the students involved are facing intimidation and bullying, according to Chami. In addition, Horne’s wrath prompted the Amnesty International club sponsor to resign, effectively disbanding the group.
“He (Horne) succeeded in coercing the sponsor at Desert Mountain to stop acting as a sponsor … you can’t have a club without a sponsor,” Chami told New Times.
“My sons and other students who are part of these clubs have now faced backlash, being called Nazis, being associated with Hitler, despite what was clearly not an antisemitic presentation,” Chami said. “Conflating criticism of the state of Israel with antisemitism does a disservice to the Jewish people … who are facing antisemitism and hate.”
To be sure, antisemitism has reportedly increased in the U.S. since the Oct. 7 attacks. However, so has hate and discrimination against Arab-Americans.
State Rep. Athena Salman, a Democrat from Tempe, said Horne’s handling of the situation has led to the students being targeted. She said it reminded her of her own experience as a Palestinian-American in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the U.S.
“Teachers said inflammatory things about Arab-Americans; my fellow students called me racial slurs,” Salman said during the Nov. 15 press conference. “Shame on Tom Horne.”
Raees Mohamed, a lawyer and board member of CAIR Arizona, which advocates for a better understanding of Islam, leveled sharp criticism back on Horne, saying the superintendent was more concerned about “protecting the image of the state of Israel” than improving public education in Arizona.
“Tom Horne sounded more like the ambassador to the state of Israel than the superintendent of public education in Arizona,” Mohamed said. “This is a political event. He’s using his role as superintendent of the public school districts in Arizona to send a political message.”
When New Times provided Horne with the complete deck of slides from the presentation, he said he still did not see the several mentions of the Hamas terrorist attacks and call for a ceasefire — even though they are clearly included.
"The IDF (Israel Defense Force), since it was founded in 1947, has given priority to protecting civilians as much as it can even at further risk to its soldiers," Horne wrote to New Times. Israel's air and ground attacks in Gaza since Oct. 7 have killed more than 14,500 people.
When asked why he did not speak with someone aligned with the students who held the presentation, Horne responded, "My sources are people who came to me."
It’s worth noting that Horne has a legacy of hoping people won’t notice his erratic behavior and suspect decisions. Horne is also known to make political arguments by grossly misrepresenting the other side’s point of view.