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Palm Beach County Superintendent Recommends Ending Principal's Contract Over Holocaust Comments

Gina Fontana
via the South Florida Sun Sentinel

The superintendent of Palm Beach County Schools said Wednesday that he recommended that the school board not renew former Spanish River High School principal William Latson's contract. 

Latson was reassigned to a district position last week after news emerged that he had sent an email claiming he couldn’t say the Holocaust was a factual, historical event.

The Palm Beach Post reported last week that Latson responded to a concerned parent asking a year ago how the Holocaust was taught at Spanish River by saying “not everyone believes the Holocaust happened.”

Superintendent Donald Fennoy released a video statement saying he understands the distress Latson's remarks generated in the community, which has a large Jewish population, including many Holocaust survivors. 

"Our schools can never be fact-neutral environments," he said. "It's our job as educators to make sure that our students know the facts and learn our history."

Latson has said he regrets his emailed comments, and that he does believe the Holocaust happened. The Palm Beach County School District said Latson was counseled on why his remarks were an issue, and spent several days visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. 

Still, his remarks have prompted outrage from the wider South Florida community.

A Change.org petition calling for Latson to be terminated has more than 17,000 signatures.

State legislators Lauren Book and Randy Fine issued a joint statement calling for Latson’s termination. Book said as a Jewish mother and a legislator, she was outraged that someone leading a school seemed to be making room for Holocaust denial.

“Quite frankly, it’s educational malpractice,” she said. “It’s absurd, offensive and plain wrong.”

She also questioned why it took the school district so long to discipline Latson. Though Latson sent the emails saying “not all of our parents have the same beliefs” about the Holocaust more than a year ago, he was only reassigned after the Post’s story publicized the emails last week.

Senator Rick Scott has also called for Latson's departure, as have other Florida lawmakers. 

The Anti-Defamation League, a Jewish anti-hate organization that collects data on hate crimes and advocates for educational and policy changes, initially issued a statement praising the Palm Beach County School District for reassigning Latson to a district position. 

However, when the Post obtained Latson's parting email to staff, in which he blamed "a statement that was not accurately relayed to the newspaper by one of our parents" for his reassignment, the ADL and others called for Latson to resign or be fired. 

"That really shows me he learned nothing," said Sheri Zvi, the regional director for ADL Florida. "Rather than becoming a leader and doing something that could have been transformative to his staff, he decided to shift blame to someone else."

Florida schools have been legally required to incorporate lessons on the Holocaust since 1994.

In a statement earlier this week, Palm Beach County School Board chairman Frank Barbieri said the district “far exceeds” the state mandate in teaching the “undeniable facts of the Holocaust.” He noted that the school district is one of few to have a curriculum administrator dedicated solely to Holocaust education.

Zvi said Palm Beach County and other school districts across the country should use the outcry against Latson's remarks as a chance to step up their Holocaust education and other anti-bias training, particularly in light of an increasing number of antisemitic incidents.

"There is such a remarkable incline of hate," she said, "that if we don’t stem this tide now, what do we have to look foward to for our children and for our future leadership?"

She said the ADL had been in talks with the district even before Latson's emails were made public about the ADL's free Holocaust education resources and its "No Place for Hate" anti-bias school certification program.

Fennoy did not specify where Latson had been reassigned within the district, or specifically address Latson's departure email, in the video statement released by the school district. 

"I have lost confidence in his leadership," Fennoy said of Latson. "As your superintendent, I'm committed to preparing all our young people for a complex and demanding world."