N.Y. education chief under fire over comment ...

Posted: 4/5/2017 6:32:00 PM
Author: Valerie Strauss
Source: This article originally appeared in the Washington Post on April 5, 2015.

N.Y. education chief under fire over comment on assignment asking students to argue for Nazi extermination of Jews
by Valerie Strauss

The education commissioner of New York State, MaryEllen Elia, is in hot water over a controversy about an assignment given to high school students to argue for or against the “Final Solution,” the extermination of the Jewish people by the Nazis in World War II.

A parent-teacher-student organization in New York is calling for her resignation after she was quoted by a reporter saying that she could understand high school students being asked to write an essay arguing for or against the Holocaust because it could foster critical thinking. A few days later she retracted it, saying she didn’t realize that such a paper had actually been assigned.

The executive board of the Hastings-on-Hudson PTSA sent a letter (see text below) to the Board of Regents, which hired Elia in 2015 to head the state’s Education Department, saying that her later apology was not enough. Asked about the letter on Wednesday, the New York State Education Department provided a statement saying:

“The assignment was wrong. It crosses a line that should never be crossed. I spoke with district officials about this serious matter. The teacher apologized and the assignment will not be used in the future.

“We are working to make sure this type of incident is not repeated in future. We have partnered with the BOCES and Alan Goldberg, Professor Emeritus at Syracuse University’s School of Education, who with community input, will develop materials to help educators teach students about the Holocaust in a respectful manner. Once the materials are ready, NYSED will share the resources with school districts and teachers across the state.”

According to Syracuse.com, two non-Jewish high school students in Oswego, N.Y., reported feeling “weird” in February when their teacher made the assignment in an English class taken through an Oswego County Center for Instruction, Technology and Innovation (CiTi)/ Board of Cooperative Educational Services New Vision program. It provides college-level career-focused education and hands-on learning to high school students. Syracuse.com, which talked to the students, said in a story initially posted March 30 that the assignment (which you can see in full here) specifically says it is “not for you to be sympathetic to the Nazi point of view.”

The assignment asked students to imagine that they were attending the 1942 Wannsee Conference in Germany, where Nazi leaders met to discuss and plan implementation of the extermination of the Jews. They were to write an essay arguing for or against it, and the assignment said:

Ultimately, this is an exercise on expanding your point of view by going outside your comfort zone and training your brain to logistically find the evidence necessary to prove a point, even if it is existentially and philosophically against what you believe.

The Oswego County News asked the teacher, Michael DeNobile, about the assignment but DeNobile deferred to the CiTi administration, and CiTi District Superintendent Christopher J. Todd said that the program’s focus remains on “student success.” He also said they embrace “creativity and respect” and that all students were offered a different assignment.

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The controversy involving Elia started when she was asked on March 30 about such an assignment. She said, according to Syracuse.com:

“I think it’s certainly a question where you want students to think on both sides and analyze … which position a person is taking. That idea of being able to identify the perspective an article has or a writer has is a very important skill.”

Later, on April 3, after the controversy hit social media, she issued a statement, published by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, saying:

“Since first learning of the assignment, I’ve done my homework to determine the facts in this situation. I spoke with district officials about this serious matter. We agree the assignment should not have been given. The teacher apologized and the assignment will not be used in the future.”

But some New Yorkers were not satisfied with that. Here’s the letter from the executive board of the Hastings-on-Hudson PTSA in Westchester County:

Dear Board of Regents,

As the Executive Board of the Hastings-on-Hudson PTSA, we ask that State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia be immediately removed from office, because of her responses regarding an assignment given to high schoolers to “argue for or against the ‘Final Solution’ to exterminate Jewish people.”

On March 30, the Commissioner refused to condemn the assignment, and instead stated “I think it’s certainly a question where you want students to think on both sides and analyze …” She added that “[t]he concept of having students identify a particular position is pretty critical, whether they can analyze a position, and then decide whether to agree or not.” http://www.syracuse.com/…/nazi_holocaust_homework_assignmen….

On April 3, shortly after calls appeared on social media for her ouster, Commissioner Elia revisited the issue of the assignment, but said only that the assignment should not have been given and won’t be given again in the future — and that was all.
http://www.syracuse.com/…/ny_education_chief_homework_askin…. She did not make any statement about how an assignment of this sort, that allows for a case to be made for the extermination of an entire people, has no place whatsoever in our schools — or anywhere.

As Commissioner Elia is well aware, our school districts are experiencing a dramatic rise in expressions of hate and intolerance, including a proliferation of swastikas on school property. Our own district has experienced this in recent months. We are disheartened and discouraged that not only did our Commissioner fail to defend tolerance and peace, but worse, she originally supported the hateful assignment. Her limited attempt to fix her initial error in judgment fell flat, and frankly made matters worse. We had hoped for more from Commissioner Elia, especially in light of the her recent support of transgender students when the federal rules on bathroom use changed, but the Commissioner determined not to make a much needed statement, even after her initial insult.

To be clear, despite Commissioner Elia’s initial comments to the contrary, genocide has never had two sides; genocide is solely a vehicle of hate and murder and its defense has no place in our schools. The Commissioner’s lack of judgment and understanding on the issue of Jewish genocide (or possibly any genocide) makes it impossible for us to support her as the top education spokesperson and decision-maker for New York.

For these reasons, we ask for the immediate removal of Commissioner Elia.


The Hastings-on-Hudson PTSA Executive Board