Imagine asking the principal of your child’s high school about the education the students receive about the Holocaust only to be told that he couldn’t say the Holocaust is “a factual, historical event”. It took five days for a mom in Florida to receive that email response.
In April 2018 a mother who wishes to remain anonymous for obvious reasons simply wanted to check that education about the Holocaust is a top priority for teachers at Spanish River Community High School in Palm Beach County, Florida. The principal, William Latson, provided a stunning answer. He said that the students are offered classes on the Holocaust and an assembly but that all of it is optional. None of it is “forced upon” the students. He said he has to remain politically neutral on this subject because he is a school district employee.
“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,” Mr. 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.”
That is quite a response, isn’t it? He “allowed” information about the Holocaust to be presented. Then he brought in the subject of slavery as another example. This is a high school principal, not a rogue teacher in a classroom. He used the excuse of being a school district employee to dodge the subject. None of it made sense, except as appeasement for anti-Semitic opinions. So, the mom refused to drop the matter and launched what turned out to be a year-long battle on behalf of Holocaust education.
Spanish River Community High School is located in South Palm Beach County where a third of the population is Jewish. Florida is home to one of the largest populations of Holocaust survivors in the world. As the mother’s battle with the principal became known to the public, the backlash was strong. Thousands signed an online petition demanding that Principal Latson resign. The emails were obtained and published by The Palm Beach Post.
The high school has a student population of 2,500 and one of the country’s largest Jewish student populations. The mother didn’t believe that the principal was a Holocaust denier and was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt – maybe he just didn’t express himself well in his email to her. She soon saw him double down to appease parents who may be Holocaust deniers.
Thinking Latson simply had expressed himself poorly, she wrote back, asking him to clarify his comments. “The Holocaust is a factual, historical event,” she wrote. “It is not a right or a belief.”
She expected a chastened response. Instead, the veteran principal doubled down.
“Not everyone believes the Holocaust happened,” he wrote, according to email records obtained by The Palm Beach Post through a public records request. “And you have your thoughts, but we are a public school and not all of our parents have the same beliefs.”
He went on to say that as an educator he had “the role to be politically neutral but support all groups in the school.”
The genocide of 6 million Jews is not a myth, it is fact. Teaching high school students about the Holocaust should not be an optional excercise. To use Pricinpal Latson’s reasoning, the Civil War would also be an optional subject. Latson was principal of the school since 2011 and the school district was slow to consider holding him accountable for his remarks. The mother suggested some educational reforms that could be made but they balked at putting them in place.
After the Palm Beach Post published the emails, Latson finally issued a public apology and explanation.
“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,” Latson wrote.
“It is critical that, as a society, we hold dear the memory of the victims and hold fast to our commitment to counter anti-Semitism,” he continued. He pointed out that Spanish River High’s educational offerings on the Holocaust exceed the state’s requirements.
The Holocaust is taught, he said, in ninth- and 10th-grade English classes, as a component of U.S. history and world history courses, as a separate elective course and in an annual assembly featuring a keynote speaker.
The suggestions on educational reform produced by the mother and another student’s mother were ignored, she said. Latson provided the women with a list of Holocaust educational efforts by the school. They saw room for improvement.
The first would require all 10th-grade English students to read “Night,” a classic Holocaust memoir by Nobel laureate Elie Wiesel. At the time, students were assigned to read only passages from the book, and the mother said that in her child’s class the readings hadn’t occurred.
The second one was to have assemblies about the Holocaust for every grade level. The school currently offers a Holocaust assembly only for 10th-graders.
Latson agreed to the first request. This past school year all sophomores were required to read “Night,” the mother and district officials said.
But while the mother said district administrators agreed to implement the assemblies at the school during the past school year, they failed to do so.
The deputy school superintendent who oversees all the county’s principals said the assemblies were not put into place because of time constraints but will be next year. He spoke up for Latson and said while the emails from Latson were inappropriate, they were not reflective of the man as an educator. Latson spent four days in Washington, D.C. touring the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. His trip was paid for by a nonprofit group that promotes Holocaust awareness.
On Monday, more than a year after this all began, Latson was fired as principal and reassigned to another position in the district.
With the rise of anti-Semitic attacks in America and around the world, Holocaust education is needed now more than ever. Historical fact is not optional. There are no excuses for excluding it in basic education for the next generation.