Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” — Edmund Burke, 18th-century political philosopher.
Regarding the Shoah, Burke’s famous line was cut down to “Never Forget.” But even that shortened line has been forgotten. And that memory loss has happened in one of the most unlikely of places: Palm Beach County, Florida.
As reported by the Palm Beach Post, it started in April of 2018. William Latson, principal of Spanish River Community High School, a public high school serving Boca Raton and Delray Beach, was asked by a student’s mother if the Holocaust was taught in the school.
The principal explained the school had “a variety of activities” for Holocaust education, but “the curriculum is to be introduced, but not forced upon individuals, as we all have the same rights but not all the same beliefs. Each year we do a Holocaust assembly, and we target the 10th-graders so every year that group will get a day’s work with the Holocaust. We advertise it to the 10th-grade parents as some do not want their children to participate, and we have to allow them the ability to decline. By doing it in that grade level, every student will get the opportunity before they graduate.”
We don’t all have the same beliefs? That’s strange; the Holocaust is not a belief. It’s a historical event.
Thinking that the principal couldn’t have meant what his words suggested, the parent sent a letter asking him to clarify. Mr. Latson forgot the rule: when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. His second response was worse than the first, saying in part:
“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. My thoughts or beliefs have nothing to do with this because I am a public servant. 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 to be exposed, so they will not be, and I can’t force that issue. One must understand that [in] a public school setting the school can’t take a position but provide information and allow parents to work with their students on what they want their children to understand.
“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. I do allow information about the Holocaust to be presented and allow students and parents to make decisions about it accordingly. I do the same with information about slavery, I don’t take a position but allow for the information to be presented and parents to be parents and educate their students accordingly.
“I am not looking for a situation to divide, but just to let all know I don’t have a position in the topic, as an educator. My personal beliefs are separate and will always be as they have no place in my profession.”
Principal Latson seemed to say that while he believed the Shoah was real, there were people who didn’t think so, and he had to be fair. But there is nothing unfair about telling the truth.
I would suggest that there is no such thing as “politically neutral” when it comes to the Holocaust, and slavery too. Children whose parents don’t believe the Holocaust happened desperately need that Holocaust education program.
As an educator, Principal Latson must realize that the denial or distortion of history is an assault on truth and understanding. Understanding and never forgetting the memory of the past is crucial to how we understand ourselves, our society, and our goals for the future. Intentionally denying or distorting the historical record threatens public understanding of how to safeguard democracy and individual rights. That’s why horrors of the past, such as the Holocaust, slavery, Jim Crow, and apartheid, must be taught to our kids. They all happened, and they should never happen again.
Surely there are parents in Boca Raton or Delray Beach who don’t believe that the Big Bang happened, that the universe is billions of years old, or man descended from apes. Believe it or not, there really is a Flat Earth Society. Does River Community High School teach that the earth is round? Principal William Latson allowed the teaching of these theories, which some people don’t believe, but made Holocaust education optional.
Compounding the principal’s weak-kneed stance against Holocaust denial is the demography of Palm Beach County. There are those who joke that Boca Raton and Delray Beach are G-d’s waiting room, because that’s where old Jews go to die.
Truthfully the Jewish population is larger and more diverse than the stereotype. A 2019 study of Palm Beach County published by the Jewish Federation reported its population was almost 20% Jewish—fourteen times more than the entire country, which is only 1.4% Jewish. The fastest growing segment of the county’s Jewish population was young families, but it also includes 12,000 Holocaust survivors. Latson’s comments must have hit them like a smack in the face.
The parent in question spent the next year fighting to make Holocaust education required, including a reading of Elie Wiesel’s Night and mandatory assemblies for each high school grade. Latson agreed to assign Night to all sophomores. District Deputy Superintendent Keith Oswald said the school didn’t have time to implement the change last year, but they will be implemented for the 2019-2020 year.
Since news of the email exchange was released, there have been calls for Latson to resign or be fired. But he seems to have truly committed himself to teshuva. He has apologized, telling the Post, “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. 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 also took a four-day trip to the American Holocaust Museum last summer to learn more about the Shoah.
His atonement for the verbal miscues and making the Holocaust lessons optional, combined with the fact that he’s helped Spanish River Community High School become very successful, mean Latson should remain in his position.
“Never Forget” has meaning. Those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them. And now it seems that at Spanish River Community High School, the horrors of the Holocaust will not be forgotten. Hopefully, some students will be teaching their parents that the Shoah is an actual historical event.