A Florida high school principal has apologized for telling a parent concerned about Holocaust education that he couldn’t say the World War II genocide was “a factual, historical event,” adding that “not everyone believes the Holocaust happened.”
Spanish River Community High School principal William Latson made the comments in emails to the parent in April 2018, according to the Palm Beach Post, which first publishedcopies of the messages last week. The public high school located in Boca Raton, Fla., is believed to have one of the county’s largest populations of Jewish students, the Post reported.
“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 said in a statement to the newspaper.
The contents of Latson’s emails have since prompted fierce backlash amid growing nationwide concern over Holocaust education in the United States. Earlier this month, the World Jewish Congress launched a petition in support of federal legislation that would make teaching the Holocaust mandatory in schools, noting an “alarming rise in antisemitism” in the U.S. and abroad and a declining public understanding of the atrocity.
In a statement Sunday, Palm Beach County’s school board chairman Frank A. Barbieri Jr. wrote that the board “is, and always has been, committed to teaching all students, in every grade level, a historically accurate Holocaust curriculum; one which leaves no room for erroneous revisions of fact or the scourge of anti-Semitism.” Barbieri added that the situation involving Latson is “being investigated at the highest levels of the District Administration.”
“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 wrote. “It is only through high quality education, and thought provoking conversations, that history won’t repeat itself.”
The principal and the Palm Beach County School District did not respond to requests for comment from The Washington Post late Sunday.
Latson’s troubles began when a mother emailed him with a question on April 13, 2018: “in what ways/classes is Holocaust education provided to all of the students?” (The emails were obtained by the Palm Beach Post.)
A bill passed in 1994 requires all school districts in Florida to incorporate lessons on the Holocaust as part of public school education, but the mother wrote that Spanish River’s offerings on the subject were not mandatory and were only attended by “the minority of students.” A 2018 study conducted by Brandeis University reported that the number of Jewish children living in Palm Beach County increased from 11,000 in 2005 to 17,300 in 2018.
In response to the parent’s email, the principal wrote that Holocaust studies are “dealt with in a variety of ways.” However, he noted that the “curriculum is to be introduced but not forced upon individuals as we all have the same rights but not all the same beliefs.” Latson referenced an optional annual Holocaust assembly intended for 10th-graders and said the topic is also “covered in the various social science courses it aligns with.”
According to the Post, the mother, who was not identified, wrote back and asked Latson to explain his stance, telling him that, “The Holocaust is a factual, historical event” and “not a right or a belief.”
But rather than apologize, Latson appeared to stand firm.
“Not everyone believes the Holocaust happened and you have your thoughts but we are a public school and not all of our parents have the same beliefs so they will react differently,” Latson wrote in a subsequent email, adding, “my thoughts or beliefs have nothing to do with this because I am a public servant."
Latson said his position dictates he be “politically neutral,” while continuing to “support all groups in the school.”
“I work to expose students to certain things but not all parents want their students exposed so they will not be and I can’t force that issue,” he wrote. “I can’t say the Holocaust is a factual, historical event because I am not in the position to do so as a school district employee."
The principal added that he approaches lessons about slavery in the same way, writing, “I do allow information about the Holocaust to be presented and allow students and parents to make decisions about it accordingly.”
Unsatisfied with Latson’s answer, the mother met several times with the principal and school district officials to propose changes, which included making the Holocaust memoir “Night” by Elie Wiesel required reading for all 10th-grade English students, the Post reported. She also suggested that Holocaust assemblies be offered to all students and not just 10th-graders, according to the Post.
As a result of her efforts, “Night” became mandatory reading for sophomores this past school year, and Palm Beach County deputy superintendent and chief of schools Keith Oswald told the Post that the assemblies are slated to happen next year.
Oswald said Latson was counseled about the emails, but not formally disciplined. The school district administrator defended Latson, touting the longtime principal’s success leading one of Palm Beach County’s largest public schools. Latson has been the school’s principal since 2011, according to his LinkedIn profile.
“It was a hastily, poorly written email that he apologized for,” Oswald said. “That’s some of the challenge that we face when we email back and forth instead of picking up the phone.”
Laura Fellman, a member of the school’s advisory council, told the Post that she also didn’t think the emails represented Latson’s actual beliefs. Fellman wrote in an email that she has heard Latson “say he knows that the Holocaust happened” and praised him for working “diligently” to “make sure that Spanish River’s students are well informed about the Holocaust.”
Latson’s emails, however, did not sit well with Karen Brill, the only Jewish member of the county school board, the Post reported. “The Holocaust is a historical fact, and I am appalled that anyone in our district believes that its teaching may be opted out of,” Brill said.
The newspaper reported that Latson toured the Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington this summer. In his statement, Latson said it is “critical, as a society, we hold dear the memory of the victims and hold fast to our commitment to counter anti-Semitism.”
Despite Latson’s apology, critics blasted him as a “Holocaust denier” and a petition calling for his resignation had more than 4,000 signatures as of early Monday.
But in the April 2018 email exchange, Latson made it clear that he was “not looking for a situation to divide.”
“My personal beliefs are separate and will always be as they have no place in my profession,” he wrote. “I am simply letting you know we do all we can as a public school within our ability.”