What’s at stake in rehiring principal who’s ‘politically neutral’ on Holocaust

A decision is forthcoming today regarding the rehire of a Florida principal who told a parent that as a school-district employee, “I can’t say the Holocaust is a factual, historical event. ” What’s critical here is to recognize that the Palm Beach County School Board’s determination is about so much more than whether Dr. William Latson will be allowed to return to the district.

At stake, among other things, is the message it will convey about integrity of the school’s Holocaust education and the state law requiring it be taught in schools. At stake as well is whether the district is fostering a culture of respect for students, parents, teachers and taxpaying community members with a large concentration of Holocaust survivors and their children.

An administrative law judge acknowledged Latson’s “poor choices” that included offending the parent by “making an endorsement, of sorts, of Holocaust deniers.” But he recommended the School Board rescind Latson’s suspension and termination and award him lost wages. The judge also recommended transferring Latson, who had been principal of the Spanish River Community High School in Boca Raton since 2011, to another position within the district.  The School Board on Oct. 7 voted four to three in favor of Latson.

At that meeting, School Board Chair Frank A. Barbieri, Jr., an attorney and one of the three voting against reinstatement, said that. Latson’s belief “as a school district employee he is precluded from telling the truth that the Holocaust is a factual, historical event” is “clearly a violation of both Florida law and board policy.”

Today’s vote comes after a torrent of backlash to the Oct. 7 decision.

Consider some of the comments made by the system’s educators who believe rehiring Latson in any capacity sets a poor example for teachers and students, because his statements give credence to Holocaust deniers. Rachel Pignato teaches history and government at Palm Beach Gardens Community High School, in addition to a Holocaust studies honors course.

Pignato told me, “It’s a slap in the face to all of us teachers who work so hard to teach our students the truth of this history that few kids really get to dive deep into to learn, and his comments undo all the work that Holocaust educators put into explaining to the students that denial is a real thing and we need to combat it.”

Sanford Lopater, a teacher at the John I. Leonard High School in Palm Beach County whose courses include government, economics and Holocaust Studies, echoes those concerns. “How many teachers and how many students will look at that comment and say … why are we teaching it, why are we here, why are we not denying…You almost give life to this when you make a comment like that…”

And he adds, “if you can’t say the Holocaust happened, then why do history teachers teach? Because you can say it about any historical event. Did the French Revolution really happen? Did the Magna Carta really get signed?”

The controversy, detailed in the judge’s Recommended Order, began in 2018, when the parent emailed Latson to inquire about the ways Holocaust education is brought to classes. Latson’s email response included a statement 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.” The parent asked him to clarify those words, adding, “The Holocaust is a factual, historical event. It is not a right or a belief.”

Latson outrageously doubled down by stating, “The clarification is that 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…”

He also stated, “I have the role to be politically neutral but 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 the issue… 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…”

Of Latson’s statements, Pignato commented, “That’s like saying ‘As a district employee, I can’t say that two plus two equals four.’ Of course you can, because it’s a fact. You actually have a duty as a district employee to encourage factual teaching to students.”

The parent brought her email exchange with Latson to the attention of the administration, and there were “numerous meetings” between the parent and school officials, but the issue did not become public until more than a year later, when it was the subject of a news article. Latson had been “counseled” but not disciplined for his statements to the parent, according to the Recommended Order, and the District continued to support him even after the public revelations, but then offered him a “voluntary reassignment.”

Latson refused to take responsibility for own his missteps, by sending his school’s staff an email that blamed his reassignment on  “a statement that was not accurately relayed to the newspaper by one of our parents.” Such victim-shaming naturally could have a chilling effect on other parents, and students, preventing them from coming forward to share concerns.

And he didn’t walk back his comments at a predetermination hearing in October 2019, in which he “again compared the Holocaust to a belief.” Subsequently, the School Board on Oct. 30, 2019, adopted the superintendent’s recommendations to suspend Latson without pay and to terminate his employment.

That more than a year had passed since the initial email exchange before the matter became public, prompting action on the part of the administration, speaks poorly of its leadership. It also has sown distrust among the teachers and in the community as well, according to Pignato. It’s understandable they are angered over what they feel is a lack of transparency. Why did it take that length of time and a media outlet’s records request for this become known? Allowing such a matter to remain under wraps certainly is not reflective of a work culture that values inclusiveness.

And the issue runs deeper than  Latson’s statements to the parent. “Dr. Latson,” the Recommended Order stated, “believes that as an educator mandated by law to teach the history of the Holocaust, he is required—by the very statues which imposes that duty, to be tolerant of those who would deny that the Holocaust is historical fact, to the point of allowing some to avoid attending Holocaust remembrance assemblies required of all students.”

That is damaging to the integrity of Holocaust education. It calls into question the strength of the state’s Holocaust mandate as well as the authenticity and effectiveness of the school’s Holocaust curriculum and its commitment to uphold that requirement.

“My fear is that by allowing him to have his job back, it will normalize antisemitism in the district,” said Lauren Gross, director of the Gross Family Center for the Study of Antisemitism and the Holocaust in Palm Beach County. “It will allow people to tolerate this behavior and we cannot tolerate antisemitism in any way.”

A newly released AJC survey of Jews found that over the past five years, 37 percent have been the target of an antisemitic physical attack, an antisemitic remark in person, by mail or by phone, or an antisemitic remark online or through social media.

For elderly Holocaust survivors who endured unspeakable atrocities, these revelations have been particularly painful. Several have testified against Latson’s rehire. Toward the end of their lives, they are being victimized once more, this time forced to defend the veracity of their tortured history—crimes against humanity that are well-documented. Should their taxes be funding Latson’s salary in any position?

“Honestly the stain that it’s put on our community, on our school district, it’s an embarrassment that this happened,” Pignato says.

She tells me she tries to teach her students not to be bystanders, but instead to stand up and dare to speak out. That’s a lesson each member of the Palm Beach County School Board should take to heart as it decides William Latson’s future in the school system.

About the Author
Deborah Gastfreund Schuss is an award-winning reporter and the recipient of a journalism fellowship that supported her graduate education at the Harvard Kennedy School. She was a correspondent for The Boston Globe for six years, reported for The Associated Press, and worked for other news organizations as a writer and editor. She also has been published in The Wall Street Journal and on foxnews.com, and blogged for The Jerusalem Post.
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