Palm Beach County school principal fired after refusing to say the Holocaust actually happened

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 that he violated the school district’s code of ethics and the state’s code of professional conduct for school principals

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 his 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 watched as teachers and his private attorney spoke in his defense before the vote, left in board meeting 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 crosshairs 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.

Latson’s termination ends, for now, his 26-year career in the county’s public school 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 an email 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 a national furor when they were revealed, coming at a time of increased concern about anti-Semitism in the U.S. and Europe.

Latson was quickly removed from his position at the school, but some political leaders, including U.S. Sen. Rick Scott and Caruso, called for Fennoy to go further and fire him.

Those calls increased after Latson blamed the controversy on “false statements” by the parent in a farewell message to school staff.

Joining the call for his termination were 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 political pressure, Fennoy announced he had “lost faith in his leadership” and resolved to fire Latson by letting his contract expire.

Two weeks later, Fennoy said he would instead launch a personnel investigation, one that he hoped would be resolved “as soon as possible.”

The turnabout was driven in part by legal uncertainty about the status of Latson’s contract: School board members already had voted to renew his contract the previous month. District officials argued that the board’s vote was not legally binding since Latson’s new contract had not been signed and executed.

But some district officials privately worried that its pending status could have given Latson grounds for a legal challenge.

Instead, district investigators zeroed in on Latson’s conduct after his remarks became public. They said that he went on a previously planned vacation to Jamaica while controversy over his comments roiled the district.

While overseas, he failed to return several phone calls and text messages as district leaders tried to confer with him about how to handle the situation.

Latson’s attorney blamed poor cell phone service and the fact that he was traveling that day for the delays in responding.

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

(c)2019 The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.)

Visit The Palm Beach Post (West Palm Beach, Fla.) at Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.