California School District Under Fire for Holocaust-Denial Assignment

Beth Greenfield, Shine Staff

A California public school district has backpedaled after an eighth-grade assignment — to write a persuasive essay on whether or not the Holocaust occurred — came under serious fire and prompted death threats to administrators.

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“We are aware of the controversy surrounding the distribution of an eighth grade Writing Prompt during the third quarter of the academic year,” notes a press release issued Monday by Rialto Unified School District interim Superintendent Mohammed Islam. “The intent of the writing prompt was to exercise the use of critical thinking skills. There was no offensive intent in the crafting of this assignment. We regret that the prompt was misinterpreted.”

Calls placed by Yahoo Shine to various extensions at the school district for further comment went unanswered on Tuesday.

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The assignment, “Is the Holocaust a Hoax?” was reportedly issued districtwide to eighth graders in April. It asked students to “write an argumentative essay, based upon cited textual evidence, in which you explain whether or not you believe [the Holocaust] was an actual event in history or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain wealth.”

District spokesperson Syeda Jafri tells CBS Los Angeles that the district’s superintendent was unaware that the assignment had been issued until angry parents informed his office, and that it had come out of the Educational Services Department, which will now undergo sensitivity training. “Absolutely the Holocaust occurred,” Jafri tells CBS. “It was brought to our attention, and we’re not happy. And we are going to correct it.” She says the district is “striking” the offending sentence, although it’s not clear whether the assignment has been nixed, or whether the wording has simply been revised. Jafri adds that both she and Islam have received death threats as a result of the controversy.

This is one of several recent examples of schools landing in hot water as a result of assignments dealing with hot-button issues. In Washington state, a middle school was criticized after assigning students to pick cotton as a way to learn about slavery, while fourth graders in Texas were given homework involving the topic of marital infidelity and Detroit middle-school students were tasked with writing an essay on whether they'd rather be slaves or factory workers. Last spring, a New York high school reportedly issued a persuasive writing assignment from a Nazi perspective.

Rialto’s press release about the recent Holocaust-denial assignment continues: “We concur with the United States Holocaust Museum website, which states, ‘Teaching Holocaust history demands a high level of sensitivity and keen awareness of the complexity of the subject matter.’ We appreciate the suggestions of the Anti-Defamation League, as we have shared goals when it comes to our students and our community. The District will provide additional review of future writing prompts in an effort to ensure appropriate subject matter.”

The Los Angeles chapter of the Anti-Defamation League responded to the Rialto assignment through various statements to media outlets and through a press release it issued on Monday. “It is ADL’s general position that an exercise asking students to question whether the Holocaust happened has no academic value,” notes associate regional director Matthew Friedman in the press release. “It only gives legitimacy to the hateful and anti-Semitic promoters of Holocaust Denial.” He adds that charging eighth graders with the task of proving the Holocaust happened is dangerous, “especially given the large volume of misinformation on denial websites.”

The statement further notes, “ADL does not have any evidence that the assignment was given as part of a larger, insidious, agenda.  Rather, the district seems to have given the assignment with an intent, although misguided, to meet Common Core standards relating to critical learning skills.”

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