Witnessing the vacillation of the Palm Beach County School Board has been a truly sobering experience. Last year, the board fired Holocaust denier William Latson from his position as principal of Spanish River High School in Boca Raton. The dismissal was a result of his shocking email exchange with a parent. Latson had written, “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 added, “Not everyone believes the Holocaust happened. You have your thoughts, but we are a public school and not all of our parents have the same beliefs.”
The State of Florida mandates that Holocaust education be part of the public school curriculum. Yet in Spanish River High School, the study was optional. Latson never recanted his position, but fought his dismissal. He sued to regain his position. In August, an administrative judge ruled that Latson should have been reprimanded or reassigned, but not fired.
Nonetheless, the school board was not legally obligated to heed the recommendation. Despite knowing this, the board voted in a four to three decision to rehire Latson and place him in an administrative position. It also decided that he would receive $152,000 in back pay, topping off his regular six-figure salary.
Perhaps the school board wanted to avoid a costly spate of legal proceedings. Perhaps it thought that it was being fiscally responsible. Perhaps, except for the one Jew on the board, no one really cared about Latson’s appalling views.
Latson’s school had many Jewish students. They included children whose grandparents or families were survivors or victims of the attempted genocide. One could only imagine if a principal with a large student body of black or Cuban-American students declared that he or she “could not say that slavery in America was a factual, historical event” or that “Not everyone believes the repressive reign of Fidel Castro really happened.”
The school board apparently made its decision because it felt that there would be no real adverse repercussions or reactions. It seems that Jews are viewed as the only minority group in America that can be wronged with no thought of serious consequence. The Palm Beach County School Board received a paltry 150 recorded public comments on its decision to re-hire Latson. The board planned its next meeting and apparently never anticipated what would soon follow.
Sharona Whisler, Florida Executive Director of ZOA, wrote a scathing piece on the board’s decision that was published as an op-ed in the Miami Herald. However, Whisler went far beyond writing a compelling article. She issued an “action alert” with detailed information on how the public could register their disapproval of the disgraceful reinstatement. She included telephone numbers, email addresses, and the deadline by which these messages needed to be sent in before the next board meeting. She rallied the public to action.
The school board received a barrage of over 1,300 public comments, an unprecedented number of responses to any issue that had ever come before it. The members needed a full week to read and listen to the written messages and recorded comments. The board met again last Monday to make its ruling. The deluge of responses overwhelmingly advocated that Latson be fired. The board followed the will of the people.
Kol hakavod to the ZOA and its Florida executive director, Sharona Whisler, for their leadership in effective Jewish activism.