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Florida high school principal removed after comments about Holocaust

A principal in heavily Jewish Boca Raton is out of a job because he refused to say the Holocaust was a real historical event.

Spanish River High School Principal William Latson told a parent that as a public school official he needed to remain "politically neutral" – sensitive to both Holocaust education advocates and people who deny the destruction of 6 million Jews during World War II.

The Palm Beach County School District didn't see it that way and on Monday assigned Latson to another, unspecified position.

His email exchange with the parent created outrage in Boca Raton, the home of many Holocaust survivors and their descendants, and spurred an investigation by the school district.

A new principal has not yet been named.

"Mr. Latson made a grave error in judgment in the verbiage he wrote in an email stating, '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.' 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 Monday.

In an email exchange last year with the parent, Latson wrote:

"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."

Latson detailed his efforts to implement the school's Holocaust curriculum, a state mandate since 1994, but wrote that not every family has been amenable to the lessons.

"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 that issue," Latson wrote.

Several petitions circulated that asked the School Board to fire Latson, who had led Spanish River since 2011. He could not be reached for comment Monday.

Spanish River parents and alumni condemned what they called the insensitivity of Latson's comments, considering the large population of Holocaust survivors and their descendants in Boca Raton and South Florida. More than 10,000 survivors are estimated to live in Palm Beach, Broward and Miami-Dade counties, the second largest concentration in the United States after New York.

A petition on Change.org that sought Latson's dismissal got more than 6,000 signatures.

What Latson wrote was "appalling, disgusting," said Robin Rubin, whose children graduated from the school. "I think he needs to leave Boca Raton."

School Board Chairman Frank Barbieri Jr. issued a statement affirming the school district's commitment to Holocaust education. He said school district leaders are reviewing the incident.

"As Board Chairman, I assure you that this situation is being investigated at the highest levels of the District Administration," he wrote.

Several Jewish organizations are planning to offer additional Holocaust education to Spanish River and its teachers, including the Ruth & Norman Rales Jewish Family Services, which assists 400 Holocaust survivors in the Boca Raton area, said Danielle Hartman, chief executive officer.

"We are planning on reaching out to Principal Latson to offer a Holocaust sensitivity training for the faculty and administration and to ensure that the memory of the Holocaust is never forgotten and never minimized," Hartman said.

Latson was not trying to hide his interactions with the parent, said Sharyn Schneiderman, a member of Spanish River's School Advisory Council and a former PTSA president. He told the council in May 2018 that some parents were unhappy with the way the school was teaching the Holocaust.

"He's dealing with a thousand of these parents and he's trying to be responsive but he's got all these things he's juggling," said Carlos Romero, parent of a recent graduate. "I don't think his life needs to be eviscerated over this mistake."

But the district said the issue had created an uproar that leaders sought to quell.

"Based on a series of meetings with the Regional Office, Mr. Latson was counseled about the choices he made in responding to a parent in email messages. Additionally, he was instructed to further expand the Holocaust curriculum at Spanish River. He also spent several days at the United States Holocaust Museum to increase his personal knowledge.

"Despite these efforts, his leadership has become a major distraction for the school community. It is, therefore, in the best interest of students and the larger school community to reassign Mr. Latson to a District position."

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