Palm Beach County school board re-hires Holocaust denying former principal

The Holocaust really isn’t a subject in which a person can remain noncommital and expect to not be questioned, especially if the person is a high school principal. A high school principal in Palm Beach County, Florida found that out the hard way in July 2019. He was fired but now finds himself re-hired, thanks to a vote by the local school board.

In July 2019 I wrote about William Latson, principal of Spanish River High. He found himself in hot water with a student’s mother when he offered less than a satisfactory answer to her question about the importance of educating students on the history of the Holocaust. It turned out that he was not willing to say that the Holocaust is a real historical event, he wanted to remain neutral on the subject. The absurdity of that forced the mother to demand he be removed from his position. Throughout all the fall-out he received, he refused to admit he is wrong about his Holocaust-denying stance. Not only did he refuse to call the Holocaust a historical event, but he also blamed the mom for even asking questions about the education of her child. Last October, the school board voted 5-2 to fire him. His refusal to answer questions about his comments on the Holocaust was a part of their decision to do so.

Latson at the time clearly refused to state the reality of the Holocaust and offered an odd excuse that he had to remain “politically neutral”. It is an absurd statement.

Latson wrote to the parent in April 2018 that Spanish River High students could opt out of Holocaust lessons because “not everyone believes the Holocaust happened” and that as an educator he had “the role to be politically neutral.”

When the parent insisted the Holocaust was a historical fact, he responded that “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.”

This was the principal of the high school, not just some random history teacher. His attorney now says that Latson, still unapologetic, was simply trying to avoid confrontations with a couple of Holocaust-denying parents. That’s ridiculous because all the mother was asking about was the curriculum. She wanted him to clarify his remarks that the Holocaust was a belief, not a historical fact. She didn’t ask him to bring other parents into their discussion.

Thomas Elfers, Latson’s attorney, argued Wednesday that acknowledging the Holocaust happened would have required Latson to confront Holocaust-denying parents on his campus.

“Two or three parents were Holocaust deniers; Dr. Latson was pressured by one mother to confront them, and he declined,” Elfers said. “Confronting parents about their beliefs was outside the scope of his duties.”

“After a century of contention between creationists and evolutionists, most educators have learned to teach the curriculum and to stay neutral,” Elfers continued.

The claim that Latson had been asked to “confront” Holocaust-denying parents appeared to be another distortion, the latest in a string of misrepresentations by Latson and his attorney about the case.

Last summer the school district released a statement of apology for Latson but he admits it was them, not him, who wrote the statement. Though Latson was removed from the high school, he remained an employee of the school district. He appealed his termination in state administrative court. He continued to insist he acted properly and that the parent was wrong to press him for clarification. In August a judge concluded that he should have been reprimanded but not fired.

Latson, the parents have been assured, will not return to the high school. He will be assigned to the district’s assessment department. Jewish residents strongly condemned his re-hiring to school board members Wednesday before the vote.

“If we rehire Dr. Latson. it is going to be a stain on this school district that will never go away,” board member Karen Brill said. “And it’s not just a local stain in Palm Beach County, it’s a national stain.”

Board member Debra Robinson said she did not believe his poorly worded email merited ending his career. A year ago she voted against firing him in the first place.

But she suggested Latson should be required to publicly apologize.

“I think that is the least he can do,” she said.

Brill ruefully dismissed that prospect.

“Good luck with that though,” she said, “because I think that there is a level of arrogance that will prohibit that ever happening.”

The school board’s only Jewish member voted against Latson’s re-hiring. The board voted in favor of the move by 4-3 rather than to continue a long and costly legal battle. He will receive $152,000 in back pay. Palm Beach County has a very large Jewish population and there are many Jewish students at Spanish River High School. Anti-semitism shouldn’t be tolerated anywhere, certainly not in an American public high school. The Holocaust is not a concept, it’s historical fact. There is no neutral position to be taken here.