Boca Raton’s Jewish community mobilized last week, making its voice heard to leaders of the local public school district who are presently considering whether to reinstate a former principal who was fired for a statement that put the veracity of the Holocaust up for debate.
Last Wednesday, the Palm Beach County school board was set to vote on whether William Latson would be rehired, following a court ruling that sided with the principal’s claims that he had been unjustifiably terminated.
In advance of the meeting, Rabbi Efrem Goldberg of the Boca Raton Synagogue met with the local school superintendent who encouraged those who object to Mr. Latson’s rehire to make their voices heard. They did just that, and the responses were so numerous that a decision had to be put off until November 2 to give the board time to review the torrent of comments.
“Thousands of letters and phone calls were made in protest, not only from our immediate community but from decent people everywhere,” Rabbi Goldberg told Hamodia. “The county’s phone system was full after 1,300 calls but many more were attempted. The message was received loud and clear that those who would reinstate someone who equivocates about the Holocaust cannot remain in a position to represent us and that at the next opportunity we would make that clear with our votes.”
The incident dates back to 2018 when, in response to an email from a mother at the Spanish River High School regarding implementation of state-mandated Holocaust education, Mr. Latson replied that the school had a responsibility to be “politically neutral.”
“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 wrote.
The mother responded that, “The Holocaust is a factual, historical event. It is not a right or belief.”
To that Mr. Latson wrote back that “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 email was made public shortly thereafter and won international media coverage.
Mr. Latson was fired the next year, officially on the grounds that he had failed to respond to inquiries from the board after his email exchange became a widely reported news item. The principal challenged the firing in courts and this past August, a state administrative judge said that his actions warranted discipline but did not rise to a level that justified termination.
Faced with the option of continuing to fight a legal battle that had already cost the district $106,000, earlier this month the board voted 4-3 to reinstate Mr. Latson and to award him $152,000 in back pay. Board members expressed regret, but said the ruling had forced the move on them and the area’s superintendent said that Mr. Latson would be reassigned to a central office, and would not be working in a school.
Yet, following the vote, Florida’s Education Commissioner, Richard Corcoran, announced his intention to revoke Mr. Latson’s certification, effectively throwing the matter back to the board’s consideration.
Ahead of the meeting, members of Boca Raton’s Jewish community began mobilizing to make the case against Mr. Latson’s rehire.
Rabbi Eliyahu Rabovsky of the Young Israel of Boca Raton, who strongly encouraged his congregants to voice their opposition over Mr. Latson’s reinstatement, said that the school’s close proximity to his community motivated him to take a role in opposing the board’s recent decision.
“This school is just a couple of miles away from us in the most Jewish area of Palm Beach County,” he told Hamodia. “[Mr. Latson’s] a very intelligent person who’s had a million opportunities to say he’s sorry. There are a lot of people from the school who say he was a great principal, which I can’t argue with because I don’t know him. But, we’re taxpayers and we have a right to express our view. In a time of tremendous divisions in society in general, I think that we have enough problems without allowing someone who is putting the facts of the Holocaust up for discussion to be an educator.”
Many from both the Jewish and general community attended last week’s meeting. Most voiced opposition, but some argued that Mr. Latson deserved to keep his job.
“We find Mr. Latson’s comments to be disturbing,” Chuck Ridley, chairman of Unify Palm Beach County, a Black community empowerment group, was quoted as saying by the South Florida Sun Sentinel. “We’re aware of many white principals who made choices that were disturbing and in some cases criminal and were treated with greater respect, care and great favor.”
Rabbi Goldberg criticized the board’s slow initial action and more recent vacillating.
“The School Board did not act as swiftly and decisively as they should have and as they likely would have if it was another case of hate and discrimination,” he said. “They have a chance to correct it now and hopefully they will step up and do the right thing.”
Many of the comments left by voicemail were from Holocaust survivors themselves. Rabbi Goldberg added that the presence of a large population of survivors in the area is yet another reason to demand Mr. Latson’s ouster.
“One cannot question the veracity of the Holocaust and remain in a position of educating children,” he said. “Holocaust denial is nothing short of an anti-Semitic attack and it cannot be tolerated or ignored, particularly in the same neighborhood that houses more Holocaust survivors than anywhere else in the U.S.”