Principal who refused to call Holocaust a fact is rehired, given back pay

Stating the Holocaust occurred was “outside the scope of his duties,” principal’s attorney says after vote

The Palm Beach Post | by Andrew Marra | October 7, 2020

A Palm Beach County principal who stoked national outrage by refusing to say the Holocaust was a historical fact was rehired Wednesday by a divided school board.

Board members voted 4-3 to reinstate former Spanish River High School principal William Latson and give him $152,000 in back pay, accepting a recommendation from an administrative law judge.

They made clear they were reluctant to reinstate the administrator, who ignited a firestorm last year with his refusal to call the Holocaust a historical fact in an email to a parent and his attempt to falsely blame the parent for the controversy.

But they said the judge’s recommended order gave them little leeway to ignore it.

Refusing to rehire Latson could mean a lawsuit and another costly court battle, they said. Already, district officials said, the school board had spent more than $106,000 defending Latson’s termination in administrative court.

Fired Spanish River High Principal William Latson (left) listens as Palm Beach County School District superintendent Dr. Donald E. Fennoy II testifies on Feb. 4 during an administrative court hearing in which Latson was trying to get his job back. Latson was rehired Wednesday.
Fired Spanish River High School Principal William Latson listens as Superintendent Donald Fennoy testifies during an administrative court earing in February at which Latson was trying to get his job back. ALLEN EYESTONE / THE PALM BEACH POST

Opposing the vote to rehire him were Chairman Frank Barbieri and board members Karen Brill and Erica Whitfield.

Board members said they had been assured by district officials that Latson would not work on a school campus. Instead, administrators said, he would be placed in the district’s assessment department as a “principal on assignment.”

Even so, the recommendation to rehire Latson deeply divided board members. 

“If we rehire Dr. Latson, it is going be a stain on this school district that will never go away,” said Brill, the board’s only Jewish member.

William Latson
William Latson

She lambasted district administrators for their handling of Latson’s remarks and the internal investigation that established the grounds for firing him.

“This matter should have never been allowed to evolve the way it did,” she said. “You are fortunate, Dr. Latson, that the school district was inept in the way in which they conducted the investigation and the way in which it was presented to the judge.”

Board member Chuck Shaw said it was unfortunate Latson’s comments had damaged the public schools’ image so badly, but he blamed the situation primarily on the media, which he said “took over this entire conversation before the superintendent had an opportunity to even begin to address this.”

Shaw voted to fire Latson last year, but he said he was voting to rehire him 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.

Latson’s lawyer defended the veteran principal Wednesday as a “great educator” who was falsely depicted as a Holocaust denier all he had done was refuse to take a professional stance on a topic that divided parents.

Acknowledging the Holocaust was a historical fact, as the parent insisted he do, would have required Latson to confront Holocaust-denying parents on his campus, attorney Thomas Elfers said after the .

“Two or three parents were Holocaust deniers; Dr. Latson was pressured by one mother to confront them, and he declined,” Elfers said in a statement. “Confronting parents about their beliefs was outside the scope of his duties.”

“After a century of contention between creationists and evolutionists, most educators have learned to teach the curriculum and to stay neutral,” the attorney continued.

The  board fired Latson last October for “ethical misconduct” and “failure to carry out job responsibilities,” nearly four months after the revelation of emails in which he declined to call the Holocaust a historical fact.

In an email exchange with a school parent, Latson wrote in April 2018 that students could 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 responded that “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.”

Latson, a veteran principal, appealed the termination in state administrative court.

A judge sided with him in August, ruling that while Latson’s actions merited punishment, they were not serious enough to establish “just cause” for termination.

Before the vote, board members heard from dozens of people from around the country who called in to express opposition to Latson being rehired.

“I find it absolutely outrageous in this climate of hate and anti-Semitism that you would even fathom rehiring such a person,” said Suzanne Rosen Snyder.

Beth Rosenson, a political science professor at the University of Florida, called in to say she was mystified by the proposal to rehire him.

Former Spanish River High School Principal William Latson gets a hug after a 5-2 vote by school board members approved his termination on grounds that he violated the school district's code of ethics and the state's code of professional conduct for school principals on October 30, 2019.
Former Spanish River High School Principal William Latson gets a hug on October 30, 2019, after a 5-2 vote by School Board members who approved his termination. GREG LOVETT/Palm Beach Post

“It sounds like the lawyers or whoever handled this screwed up royally,” she said, adding that Latson “has proven that he’s uneducated, that he doesn’t know history.”

In a statement, the anti-hate group ADL Florida said it opposed the rehiring.

“We are disappointed that he will be reinstated,” ADL Florida Regional Director Sheri Zvi said in the statement. “Given Latson’s disturbing comments about the Holocaust and his failure to take responsibility for them, we continue to believe that he should not be part of the Palm Beach County School System.”

Latson found himself at the center of a political storm in July 2019, when his comments about the Holocaust were revealed in a Palm Beach Post article.

The comments prompted international controversy when they became public, coming at a time of increased concern about anti-Semitism in the U.S. and Europe.

Latson apologized and was quickly removed from his position at the school. But some political leaders, including U.S. Sen. Rick Scott, called for Schools Superintendent Donald Fennoy to end his employment.

When Latson, in a farewell message to his faculty, blamed the controversy on “false statements” by the parent, the calls to fire him were joined by ADL Florida; state Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach; and state Rep. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton.

Under increasing pressure, Fennoy recommended Latson be terminated, and the school board approved his firing in a 5-2 vote.

In his appeal, Latson argued 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 that his comments generated.

In his ruling, Cohen agreed. The district’s “progressive discipline” policies required Latson to be reprimanded first before termination could even be considered, he said.

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to include comments from William Latson’s attorney.

Featured image: William Latson is flanked by Superintendent Art Johnson (left) and his attorney, Thomas Elfers, while waiting for a vote on his termination as Spanish River principal on October 30, 2019. GREG LOVETT/THE PALM BEACH POST

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