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FL high school principal refused to call Holocaust a fact

Spanish River High School Principal William Latson apologized after telling a parent he can't say the Holocaust is a factual, historical event. (Palm Beach Post/TNS)

She sent off the email with few expectations — a routine question seeking a routine answer. How, the mother wondered, was the Holocaust being taught at Spanish River High School?

She wanted to make sure, she wrote to the principal, that her child’s school was making Holocaust education “a priority.” The response she received five days later, in April 2018, was anything but routine.

In an email reply, Principal William Latson assured her that the school had “a variety of activities” for Holocaust education.

But he explained that the lessons are “not forced upon individuals as we all have the same rights but not all the same beliefs.”

The mother, who asked not to be named to protect her child’s identity, was stunned. Was the principal of one of Palm Beach County’s largest public schools suggesting that the Holocaust was a belief rather than an actual event?

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.”

“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.

That response led the mother to launch a yearlong effort to address what she called a school leader’s failure to separate truth from myth regarding the genocide of an estimated 6 million Jews under Germany’s Nazi regime in the 1940s.

Principal regrets comments

She didn’t doubt that Latson knew the Holocaust was real, she said in an interview, but she feared his reluctance to say so stemmed from a desire to avoid confronting parents who deny the Holocaust’s reality.

Denying or minimizing the Holocaust is described by the Southern Poverty Law Center, an organization that monitors hate groups, as “an essential manifestation of anti-Semitism.”

Why, the mother wondered, would a lifelong educator cast a historical fact as a “belief” to appease anyone?

Her push led to changes in how the Holocaust is taught at Spanish River High, a 2,500-student campus west of Boca Raton said to have one of the county’s largest Jewish student populations.

It caused a small furor in the school district’s upper ranks, which had to grapple with whether and how to admonish a longtime principal of a high-performing school for his troubling statements.

But it ultimately left the mother frustrated, alleging that the school balked at putting in place some educational reforms she suggested and did too little to hold Latson, the school’s principal since 2011, accountable for his words.

In a statement to The Post, Latson apologized for the way he expressed himself in his emails, saying it was not indicative of his actual beliefs or regard for historical fact.

“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.

Mother seeks changes

After her email exchange with Latson left her troubled, the mother pushed for a face-to-face meeting. In May 2018, three weeks after the email exchange, she and a second concerned mother met with Latson and a group of school district administrators who supervise him.

At the meeting, Latson provided the parents with a list of Holocaust educational efforts at the school.

But the mother wasn’t satisfied. She told Latson her child had informed her that not all of the supposed educational efforts were carried out in the classroom.

She asked that teachers be required to document their Holocaust lessons and readings. The suggestion was initially embraced, she said, but ultimately ignored.

Both mothers recalled that Latson again was reticent to state that the Holocaust was a historic event, a fact that angered the second mother, who expected the meeting would have resolved any tensions.

Instead, the second mother said, “I came out of there feeling so much worse. How do you pick and choose history?”

Latson did not respond to questions about his statements in meetings with the mothers.

Observing that some of school’s Holocaust teachings were in optional courses, the mother sought to use Latson’s emails as leverage to push for more educational offerings to reach all students.

In follow-up meetings with a school district administrator, she proposed two changes.

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.

Trip to Holocaust museum

In an interview, Deputy Schools Superintendent Keith Oswald said the assemblies weren’t put in place this past year because of time constraints, but they will take place in the upcoming school year.

Administrators counseled Latson about the impropriety of his emails, Oswald said, but he was not formally disciplined.

This summer, Latson volunteered to spend four days in Washington, D.C., touring the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, a trip paid for by a nonprofit that promotes Holocaust awareness.

Latson said in a statement that his time in the museum served as “a poignant lesson and reminder of one of the most horrific events in human history.”

Oswald, who oversees all the county’s principals, said he agreed with the mother that Latson’s email messages were inappropriate but were not reflective of who he was as an educator.

Latson, he said, is a popular school leader whose school does more Holocaust education that most campuses and has led the school successfully for years.

He should not be judged, he said, solely by a pair of email messages.

“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.”

Board member: ‘I am appalled’

Also defending Latson: a parent on the school’s advisory committee who has worked closely with him and called his comments “contrary to what I have heard directly from Mr. Latson.”

“I’ve heard Mr. Latson state that he knows that the Holocaust happened,” Laura Fellman, a parent and member of the school advisory council since 2014, said in an email interview. “Even more importantly, I’ve seen that he works diligently with Spanish River’s teachers and other resources … to make sure that Spanish River’s students are well informed about the Holocaust.”

Palm Beach County School Board member Karen Brill, the board’s only Jewish member, said she was troubled by the incident and said the school district must work to ensure all students learn about the Holocaust, a requirement of state law.

“The Holocaust is a historical fact,” she said, “and I am appalled that anyone in our district believes that its teaching may be opted out of.”

The mother’s push culminated in a follow-up meeting in May, more than a year after Latson’s messages to her.

There, the mother met with Latson and two regional superintendents. The mother spoke of her frustrations about the assemblies, about how the school ensures Holocaust studies are taught in the classroom.

She said that she no longer had faith in Latson’s leadership, according to minutes from the meeting obtained by The Post.

Although it is not reflected in the minutes, the mother wrote to district officials afterward to say that in the meeting Latson had once more said that the Holocaust is a “personal belief” and that he cannot take a stance on it as a district employee.

District officials deny that Latson made any such statements.

It was an emotional meeting, the mother said, one in which Latson told the mother that he felt she was accusing him of being an anti-Semite.

She told him he was wrong, that she didn’t believe he was anti-Semitic.

“I think you are protecting those who don’t believe in the Holocaust,” she recalled saying.


© 2019 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.