Spanish River High principal whose Holocaust remarks ignited furor is fired

Source: palmbeachpost
Palm Beach County public schools fired former Spanish River High School Principal William Latson Wednesday, four months after comments he made about the Holocaust prompted a national outcry.

By a 5-2 vote, county school board members approved the veteran principal’s termination on grounds of “ethical misconduct” and “failure to carry out job responsibilities.”

The official justification for Latson’s termination was not the explosive comments that drew international attention but his failure to return messages from district officials in the days after his comments became public.

The decision culminates months of political turbulence and legal wrangling over Latson’s case, in which the district found itself caught up in an unprecedented furor over the principal’s refusal to state unequivocally to a parent that the Holocaust was a historical fact.

Voting to terminate him were board members Marcia Andrews, Frank Barbieri, Karen Brill, Chuck Shaw and Erica Whitfield. Opposing the termination were board members Barbara McQuinn and Debra Robinson.

Latson, who sat quietly in the front row as teachers and his private attorney spoke in his defense Wednesday, left the school board meeting room in tears when the meeting ended. He declined to comment.

It’s the first time in years that the school board has voted to fire a principal. Typically, principals who find themselves in the district’s cross-hairs are transferred into non-academic positions or resign before termination proceedings begin.

But the case is likely not over. Latson’s attorney has vowed to appeal the firing in state administrative court, arguing that it was arbitrary and driven by political expediency.

If an administrative law judge agrees, district officials could be ordered to rehire Latson.

Speaking in his support Wednesday were four Spanish River High teachers, who described Latson as a kind and tolerant administrator whose words and beliefs were twisted in a national media frenzy and was now being fired on trumped-up allegations.

Ryan Wells, a social sciences teacher, accused the district of kowtowing to an “angry mob,” pointing out that administrators were aware of Latson’s remarks for more than a year before they became public yet took no disciplinary action.

“This is a textbook example of a witch hunt,” he said.

Board members declined to comment after the vote, citing the possibility of litigation.

Latson’s termination ends, for now, his 26-year career in the county’s public schools, one that brought him to the helm of Spanish River High, a well-regarded 2,500-student campus west of Boca Raton.

He served in that role since 2011 with little public controversy. But he found himself at the center of a political storm in July when comments he made about the Holocaust last year were revealed in a Palm Beach Post article.

In an email conversation with a parent, Latson wrote 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.”

Pressed by the parent, he wrote in April 2018 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.”

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 insisted that he did believe the Holocaust was a historical fact.

He 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 blamed the controversy on “false statements” by the parent, the calls to fire him were joined by the Anti-Defamation League, an anti-hate group; state Sen. Kevin Rader, D-Delray Beach; and state Rep. Tina Polsky, D-Boca Raton.

Under increasing pressure, Fennoy announced he had “lost faith” in Latson and resolved to fire him by letting his contract expire.

Two weeks later, Fennoy changed tack, saying that he would instead launch a personnel investigation and fire Latson for cause.

The turnabout was driven in part by the fact that board members already had voted to renew his contract the previous month. Even though it had not been signed and executed, some district officials worried that its pending status could give Latson grounds for a legal challenge.

In a three-month investigation, district officials did not probe the propriety of Latson’s statements about the Holocaust. Instead, they zeroed in on his conduct after his remarks became public.

Days after national media outlets began covering his remarks, Latson had left for a previously planned vacation to Jamaica.

He alerted supervisors that he was leaving but failed to respond to phone and text messages left by district administrators trying to reach him about the worsening political fallout.

Latson’s attorney blamed poor cell phone service and the fact that he was traveling for the failure to respond.

But the district concluded his conduct amounted to “ethical misconduct” and “failure to carry out job responsibilities.”

That set up the necessity of a public vote to terminate him, a relative rarity for a high-level school district employee.

Thomas Elfers, Latson’s attorney, told board members Wednesday that the push to fire Latson was built on “false allegations,” first that Latson believed the Holocaust was not a historical fact and later that he willfully ignored messages from his supervisors.

In reality, Elfers argued, Latson was a beloved principal with “an unblemished record,” one who perhaps went too far in his tolerance of opposing views but never doubted the Holocaust’s reality and should not have been expected to respond to frequent messages while traveling to a foreign country.

While Latson was not completely blameless, Elfers said, the rest of the district’s leadership was also to blame for failing to anticipate and contain the fallout from his remarks.

“No one, from Dr. Latson to the superintendent, is without some level of culpability,” he said.