William Latson rehired: Boca Raton principal who refused to call Holocaust fact, is given his job back along with $150K backpay. Right decision?
Did a school board make the right decision? Disconcert has come to the fore after a Florida high school principal who was fired last year over ‘controversial comments’ surrounding the Holocaust being rehired this week and issued $152,000 in back pay.
The decision to rehire and compensate former Spanish River Community High School Principal William Latson came following a 4-3 vote by the Palm Beach County School Board on Wednesday.
Latson was fired in October last year when emails he sent to a student’s mother surfaced, in which he said that the mass slaughter of six million Jews is a ‘belief’ that children at the school wouldn’t have to be ‘forced’ to learn while challenging whether the Holocaust was a ‘factual, historical event’.
The about turn follows an administrative law judge in August ruling that the school district failed to prove Latson ‘engaged in misconduct in office, incompetence, or gross insubordination by a preponderance of the evidence’ and recommended his termination be overturned.
That ruling was accepted by the board Wednesday, with sitting members expressing their reluctance to do so.
‘the role to be politically neutral’
Of note, Latson will not return to Spanish River or work on any other school campus. Instead will be placed in the district’s assessment department as a ‘principal on assignment.’
The decision followed expressions of anger from board members and 90 minutes of recorded voicemails from Holocaust survivors, family members and others who urged the district not to reinstate the educator.
Latson, who had worked for the Palm Beach public school district for more than 20 years, found himself at the center of a contention last year when emails he’d sent to a parent of a student at Spanish River in April 2018 resurfaced.
In the exchange, Latson wrote that students were allowed to opt out of Holocaust lessons because ‘not everyone believes the Holocaust happened’ and that as an educator he had ‘the role to be politically neutral’.
When the parent responded to insist the Holocaust was a historical fact, he insisted, ‘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.’
He continued: ‘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 and 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 don’t take a position but allow for the information to be presented’
‘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.
‘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.’
Later, the principal explained that he is not a so-called Holocaust denier, rather that he views it as his place to remain neutral on all matters of politics.
Latson’s response led the mother to launch a year-long campaign addressing what she described as school leaders failure to separate truth from myth regarding the genocide of an estimated 6 million Jews under Germany’s Nazi regime.
That effort culminated in Latson’s firing when the emails were leaked to the press in July 2019 the dailymail reports.
The comments prompted international controversy when they became public, coming at a time of increased concern about anti-Semitism in the US and Europe.
Shame on @pbcsd for reinstating William Latson.
Refusing to state that the Holocaust happened does not make you ‘politically neutral,’ as Latson claimed. It makes you a Holocaust denier.
How can this man be expected to be a role model for students?https://t.co/PKpLeMNPXn
— American Jewish Committee (@AJCGlobal) October 7, 2020
Ethical misconduct or media pressure?
The school board said at the time that he wasn’t fired for his aforementioned comments, rather because of ‘ethical misconduct’ and ‘failure to carry out job responsibilities,’ including not responding to messages from school district officials during the news coverage of his comments. Latson went on vacation to Jamaica on the day that media outlets began covering the story.
He later appealed his termination, arguing that his offenses did not amount to ‘just cause’ to terminate his contract, and that his firing was a ploy by the district to defuse the intense criticism his comments generated.
A Tallahassee judge sided with him in August, saying that students at Spanish River were still learning about the Holocaust, as required by Florida law, and that Latson’s actions were not serious enough to warrant termination.
Judge Robert S. Cohen said that there was not a ‘preponderance of the evidence; that suggests Watson ‘engaged in misconduct in office, incompetence, or gross insubordination.’
‘There was, therefore, no just cause for his suspension and termination,’ the judge wrote. ‘The transfer of Dr. Latson to another position within the District, a discretionary move, however, is warranted based upon his poor choices in communicating to a parent his “neutral” position on the factual basis for the Holocaust.’
Opposing the vote to rehire him on Wednesday were Chairman Frank Barbieri and board members Karen Brill and Erica Whitfield.
‘I hope you understand Dr. Latson that this is on you and that you finally take accountability for your words and actions,’ Brill said during the meeting, as reported by the Miami Herald. ‘On behalf of the 17 million people who died in the Holocaust … I will not support the judge’s and superintendent’s recommendation.’
Brill, the board’s only Jewish member, continued by voicing her outrage that the school board would be asked to allow Latson to return in any capacity.
Board member Chuck Shaw said it was unfortunate Latson’s comments had permanently tarnished the public schools’ image, but he primarily blamed the situation on the media, which he said ‘took over this entire conversation before the superintendent had an opportunity to even begin to address this.’
After William Latson’s reinstatement last night, his attorney released a statement insisting the former principal was right not to take a stance on the Holocaust, likening its historicity to debates between creationists and evolutionists.
Story has been updated. pic.twitter.com/J8BAt9RhrY
— Andrew Marra (@AMarranara) October 8, 2020
What is the role of an educator? To follow narrative or to question & share other claims?
Shaw voted to fire Latson last year, but he said he was voting in support of the judge’s recommendation to avoid a costly legal battle.
‘If we decide tonight that we are not going to accept the hearing officer’s final order, we’re likely going to have an appeal and end up in court,’ he said, according to the Palm Beach Post.
Board members said they had been assured by district officials that Latson would not work on a school campus.
Instead he will be placed in the district’s assessment department as a ‘principal on assignment.’
Shortly after the emails leaked, Latson spent four days in Washington, DC, touring the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum last year, 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’.
He also apologized for his remarks to the mother in a statement to 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.’
He said that in the apology that ‘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’.
Spanish River High School is in Boca Raton, which is a community that has a large Jewish population. The Holocaust is taught in ninth and 10th grades at the high school.