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District pulls controversial Holocaust assignment

District pulls controversial Holocaust assignment

'We agree this assignment should not have been given'
District pulls controversial Holocaust assignment
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia tours a school in 2015.
Photographer: MARC SCHULTZ

Editor's note: This story was clarified at 11:50 a.m. on April 5 to make clear the amount of time it took MaryEllen Elia to announce that the assignment was inappropriate, had been withdrawn and won't be used again.

A Holocaust assignment that sparked controversy in central New York and led state Sen. James Tedisco to call for Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia’s resignation won’t be used again, Elia said Monday.

After reviewing the assignment and discussing it with the Oswego County-based BOCES district where students were asked to "argue ... for" the "Final Solution," Elia said state and district officials agreed the assignment was inappropriate and that the teacher apologized.

“We agree this assignment should not have been given,” Elia said in a statement.

The assignment was part of an Oswego County BOCES Center for Instruction, Technology and Innovation program. That district also put out a statement saying the assignment won't be given out in the future.

“CiTi recognizes the sensitivity of this serious matter, and after determining the facts of the situation and speaking with district officials, we agree the assignment should not have been given,” the BOCES program wrote on its website.

Elia stepped into the controversy during a visit to Syracuse on Thursday, just as the Syracuse Post-Standard published a report about a pair of students upset with the assignment. When reporters asked her about the assignment, she said she didn't know the specific circumstances before launching into an explanation of the importance of teaching students critical-thinking skills and the ability to understand all sides of issues.

Some people interpreted the statement as a defense of the underlying assignment and condemned her response to the controversy, with some going as far as calling for her resignation.

On Tuesday, Tedisco tempered his statement from last week — when he said Elia was "truly out of touch and not capable of leading New York's education department" — and said he would leave her employment "up to the Regents."

But he also reiterated his criticism that Elia should have responded more forecefully to a reporter's question about students uncomfortable with an assignment that "asked (them) to defend the Holocaust." That's an easy one, Tedisco said: No, students should never be asked to take the side of Nazis.

"What could she have learned that would have made her support this type of assignment?" Tedisco asked Tuesday. "I'm not in charge of her resignation, but I would ask the Board of Regents to take a good hard look at the fact that it took her six days to study an assignment that asked students to defend the Holocaust."

Elia learned about the assignment on Thursday and announced on Monday that the lesson plan had been withdrawn, a period of four days.

The Anti-Defamation League and New York City-based Anne Frank Center for Mutual Respect, organizations that focus on fighting anti-Semitism, had also criticized Elia last week. On Monday, they said they were pleased to see she and the district had agreed the assignment was inappropriate and the teacher had apologized.

"There is no assignment that could ever be given to students that even hints at a balanced perspective to the horrors of Nazi actions during the Holocaust, and we are pleased that the school district, as well as ... Elia ultimately deemed this offensive assignment inappropriate for a classroom setting," Evan Bernstein, the defamation league's New York regional director, said in a statement.

Taken with a recent flare-up in Saratoga Springs over a 10th-grade assignment that asked students to analyze and discuss a political cartoon that compared President Donald Trump to Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini, the two separate instances demonstrate the thin line that teachers walk in developing assignments that push and challenge students without going too far.

After a pair of Saratoga parents went on Fox News and called the political cartoon part of the school's "liberal indoctrination," district officials stood behind the assignment and said it was part of a broader discussion and lesson on media bias.

Carl Korn, spokesman for New York State United Teachers, said the controversies may be a function of the culture's broader political polarization. He said controversial assignments have to be evaluated in their full context, and that communities need to carry on conversations about what they want taught in their schools.

“The age of the students is important, what level course, the context of what the discussion has been in the class and the maturity of the class to handle delicate topics. This is the nuance that is very, very important,” Korn said. "Communities need to trust teachers and their judgement, while at the same time being involved in a community conversation."

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