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A school principal tried to stay ‘politically neutral’ about the Holocaust. He's now been removed

A recent report estimated that Jewish people made up about a third of the population in South Palm Beach County Source: NYT: Zuma Press Inc/Alamy

A high school principal in Florida has been removed from his position over his refusal to state that the Holocaust was a factual historical event, saying that he had to stay “politically neutral” about the World War II-era genocide of 6 million Jews.

“Not everyone believes the Holocaust happened,” the principal, William Latson of Spanish River Community High School in Boca Raton, Florida, wrote in an email exchange with an unidentified parent in April 2018. He said that the school offered an assembly and courses on the Holocaust, but that they were optional and could not be “forced upon” all students.

The emails were recently obtained and published by The Palm Beach Post.

“I can’t say the Holocaust is a factual, historical event because I am not in a position to do so as a school district employee,” Latson wrote, making a distinction between his personal beliefs about the Holocaust and his role as the leader of a public school. “I do allow information about the Holocaust to be presented and allow students and parents to make decisions about it accordingly. I do the same with information about slavery.”

The comments set off an intense backlash in South Florida, which has a significant Jewish population and has among the highest concentrations of Holocaust survivors in the world. Thousands signed an online petition calling for Mr Latson’s resignation, and on Monday, the Palm Beach County school district announced that he would be stripped of his position as principal and reassigned to another job in the district.

The debate comes as memory of the Holocaust is fading and anti-Semitism is on the rise. Florida is among the states working to combat that; under state law, all school districts must offer Holocaust education. In 2018, the gunman who killed 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, about a 20-minute drive from Spanish River Community High School, opened fire during one of these lessons, a class called History of the Holocaust.

Two women at the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, Germany
Two women at the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, Germany
Getty Images

“This is a community that is brittle, that is very sensitive to crimes of hate, crimes of violence and anti-Semitism,” said Matthew C. Levin, the president of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, which found in a 2018 study that Jewish people accounted for about a third of the area’s population.

“It’s not something we can accept in our society,” he said. “We have to have zero tolerance.”

Karen M. Brill, a Jewish member of the Palm Beach County school board, said earlier Monday that she believed Latson needed to leave the school. “The trust has been broken and an apology will never erase the damage caused by his comments,” she said in a phone interview. “Staying neutral and refusing to state that the Holocaust is a fact is the type of thing that leads to anti-Semitism.”

In its statement, the school district said that Latson had made “a grave error in judgment” when he had refused to state the Holocaust as fact in the email. Officials counselled him in a series of meetings, and he also spent several days at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum to increase his awareness, the district said.

Latson, who did not respond to a request for comment Monday, also apologized in a statement to The Palm Beach Post. “I regret that the verbiage that I used when responding to an email message from a parent, one year ago, did not accurately reflect my professional and personal commitment to educating all students about the atrocities of the Holocaust,” he said.

But by Monday, school officials had decided that Mr Latson had become a “major distraction.” “It is, therefore, in the best interest of students and the larger school community to reassign Mr Latson to a District position,” the district said.

A district representative declined to specify the position to which Latson would be reassigned.

As examples of anti-Semitism have spread — including the massacre of 11 people at a Pittsburgh synagogue last year — related controversies have also erupted on playgrounds and school campuses across the country.

This year, students at an elite private school in Washington displayed swastikas at an assembly, and two 12-year-olds drew the symbols on a playground in Queens. Students in California also sparked outrage after they were photographed giving a Nazi salute while standing in front of several dozen red cups arranged in the shape of a swastika. They later met with Eva Schloss, a Holocaust survivor whose mother had married Anne Frank’s father. Schloss said the photograph highlighted the need for further education about the Holocaust.

A study released in 2018 found that even among adults, many Americans lacked basic knowledge of the Holocaust, a problem that was especially pronounced among people ages 18-34.

For example, 31 per cent of Americans, and 41 per cent of millennials, believed that 2 million or fewer Jews had been killed in the Holocaust; in fact, the number is around 6 million. Forty-one per cent of Americans, and 66 per cent of millennials, could not say what the death camp Auschwitz was. And 52 per cent of Americans wrongly thought Hitler had come to power through force.

Despite these gaps, the study found an overwhelming consensus — with 93 per cent of people agreeing — that all students should learn about the Holocaust at school.

The Palm Beach County school district teaches about the Holocaust at all grade levels and has a specific employee dedicated to Holocaust education in the district, according to the school board chairman, Frank A. Barbieri Jr., who said in a statement over the weekend that the district’s curriculum exceeds what is required by the state mandate.

Still, he said in a statement that the board was committed to “doubling down” to enlighten anyone who questions “the undeniable facts of the Holocaust.”

“Every generation must recognize, and learn from, the atrocities of the Holocaust’s incomprehensible suffering and the enduring stain that it left on humankind,” he said. “It is only through high-quality education, and thought-provoking conversations, that history won’t repeat itself.”

Levin, of the Jewish Federation of South Palm Beach County, said that the Holocaust should be treated like other undebatable facts throughout history, from the Roman Empire to the Revolutionary War to slavery.

“We simply don’t let educators pick and choose what is a philosophical debate and what is not,” he said, adding: “There is no way to be politically correct about the Holocaust. It is a fact of life.”

By Sarah Mervosh © 2019 The New York Times

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