A South Florida principal who refused to say the Holocaust was a “factual, historical event” will be reassigned to a district position immediately, the Palm Beach County School District confirmed Monday.
The reassignment of William Latson, principal of Spanish River Community High School in Boca Raton, comes after emails he wrote to a mother’s inquiry in April 2018 surfaced over the weekend.
The emails, first obtained by The Palm Beach Post through a public records request, show Latson saying “not everyone believes the Holocaust happened” and that he couldn’t say the Holocaust was real because he worked at a public school and could not take a position on the matter.
The only thing we can do, he wrote to the parent, who was not identified, is to make the information accessible so that the parents and students could make a decision.
All public school districts in Florida are required to teach about the Holocaust. The Jewish community comprises over one third of the South Palm Beach County population, with most of the community living in central Boca Raton and in Delray Beach, according to the 2018 South Palm Beach County Jewish Community Study.
The Palm Beach County school district has received national recognition for its Holocaust curriculum, which is said to have significantly exceeded what has been mandated by the state since 1994.
However, the mother noted in the email that at Spanish River, some of the courses were optional.
The principal told the mother in the email exchange that the school’s Holocaust curriculum would be “introduced but not forced upon as we all have the same rights but not all the same beliefs.”
The district disagreed with Latson’s interpretation.
“In addition to being offensive, the principal’s statement is not supported by either the School District Administration or the School Board,” the district said in a news release on Monday.
Latson did not return a request for comment. He told the Post that he was sorry for how he expressed himself in his emails and that it was not a reflection of his personal views or commitment to educate students about the Holocaust.
Latson’s opinion shifted a day later.
Florida Rep. Randy Fine, R-Brevard County, shared a screenshot Tuesday afternoon of a goodbye message Latson sent to Spanish River’s faculty and staff. In the message, Latson said he was being reassigned to the district office because of a statement that was not “accurately” relayed to the newspaper by one of the school’s parents.
“It is unfortunate that someone can make a false statement and do so anonymously and it holds credibility but that is the world we live in,” his message read.
The decision to transfer Latson comes a day after School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri released a statement reaffirming the board’s commitment to teaching about the Holocaust.
“Every generation must recognize, and learn from, the atrocities of the Holocaust’s incomprehensible suffering and the enduring stain that it left on humankind. It is only through high quality education, and thought provoking conversations, that history won’t repeat itself,” Barbieri wrote.
The move also comes amid growing pressure for Latson to resign. Boca Raton resident Ben Szlamkowicz created a petition Saturday demanding Latson’s resignation, an investigation into the comments and training for all school staff on how to teach the Holocaust. By Monday evening, it had garnered more than 8,000 signatures.
Szlamkowicz’s grandfather is a Holocaust survivor, having lived through Auschwitz, the notorious concentration camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.
“While everyone is free to question whatever they would like to, the Holocaust and its history are not subject to debate, just as the unspeakable horrors of slavery are not subject to debate . . . ” Szlamkowicz said in a statement through his lawyer. “Principal Latson’s reassignment is a good start, but hopefully it is just the beginning. As Holocaust survivors become more and more rare, we must be ever more vigilant [in] defending against this dangerous and nonsensical rhetoric.”
Szlamkowicz is calling for an expansion of the Holocaust education program across the state of Florida, from more classes on the subject to additional training for teachers.
“It’s our job now to stand up for what is right and speak for those who cannot speak anymore,” Yechezkel Rodal, Szlamkowicz’s attorney, told the Miami Herald.
Richard Stark, who represents Weston in the Florida House and is chair of the Florida Jewish Legislative Caucus, said he was happy with the district’s decision but disappointed in how long it took the district to act.
“We expect more from our educators than to cater to those who deny the truth that millions of Jewish people died in the Holocaust,” Stark said in a statement. “Every new generation must learn from the horrors of the Holocaust, because that is the only way we can safeguard against it ever happening again.”
Three Florida legislatures want stricter action to be taken against Latson.
“This Principal should have been fired, not simply reassigned,” U.S. Sen. Rick Scott tweeted Tuesday after his meeting with Palm Beach County School Board Superintendent Donald Fennoy, a day after the district’s decision to reassign Latson was announced. “There is no excuse for what he expressed. There is no excuse for holocaust denial. There is no excuse for anti-Semitism of any kind.”
Sen. Lauren Book, D-Plantation, and Rep. Fine are also echoing Scott’s call. In a joint bipartisan statement, Book and Fine are demanding for the “immediate termination” of Latson and an investigation into how his conduct was “tolerated and covered up” for over a year by the school district.
“Instances of Anti-semitism by public employees in our K-20 public education system must be treated the same as racism,” their statement reads. “Imagine if Principal Latson had said in an email to an African-American parent that he could not and would not state that slavery is a factual, historical event. He would have been gone — one hundred percent justifiably — by the end of the day.”
U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio also announced plans to file the “Never Again Education Act” in response to the incident, saying the act will help states obtain resources from the U.S. Department of Education to teach students about the Holocaust.
The district says administrators were already addressing the situation when the messages were brought to the attention of the Regional Office, though it’s unclear when exactly this was.
Latson was counseled on the matter and instructed to expand the school’s Holocaust curriculum, according to the district. He also spent several days at the U.S. Holocaust Museum to improve his personal knowledge, the district said.
The district is also implementing some of the parent’s curriculum suggestions. The Post reports all sophomores were required to read “Night,” a classic Holocaust memoir by Elie Wiesel this past school year and that assemblies about the Holocaust will be held this school year for all grade levels. Currently, the assemblies were only for 10th-graders.
Sheri Zvi, the Anti-Defamation League’s regional director for Florida, is hoping this incident will push “Palm Beach County Schools to ensure that the Florida Holocaust education mandate is consistently and fully implemented district-wide.”
Currently, the league has been working with the district to implement the Echoes & Reflections Holocaust education initiative, which has reached more than 60,000 educators across the country.