A teacher and the principal at a New Jersey school have been placed on paid leave as part of continued fallout from a controversial assignment that appeared to glorify Adolf Hitler.
In a letter to parents, Tenafly Schools Superintendent Shauna DeMarco said the assignment for fifth grader at Maugham Elementary School violated the district's curriculum. The leave is pending a district investigation into how it was allowed to happen, and remain displayed "even after some in the school community expressed concerns about its appropriateness."
DeMarco went on to say that the district "has specific guidelines and curriculum designed to teach difficult and sensitive material to students in a way that ensures the parents are informed and part of the process, and that students receive information in an appropriate and respectful way. Our initial review indicates that the curriculum and learning standards were not appropriately implemented and an attempt to individualize the project resulted in the student receiving misguided instruction from the teacher. The posting of the resulting project was offensive and inappropriate and directly violated the school Board's policies."
A New Jersey school board doubled down Wednesday on its insistence that the student's publicly displayed homework assignment was taken out of context amid growing community outrage.
"We firmly believe it was never the intent of the student to promote antisemitism, and we must support this child and their family as the administration continues to work towards completing their discovery of all the facts," the Tenafly Board of Education wrote in a letter to parents. "There is no question that our administration will need to determine what went wrong, if and why the assignment for this class was different than the other 5th grade classes, and who bears responsibility."
The Board pledged the district superintendent would present her findings and recommendations to its members "once all the facts are known." At that point, the Board said it would act on those findings and recommendations.
As for the student and family involved at the center of everything, DeMarco said it has been "devastating" for them, and that they have been "thrown into turmoil through no fault of their own."
In a letter, a local rabbi said that the parents of the child did not speak English, but expressed to their child that they were not comfortable with her writing about Hitler. The child told the parents that given the racial tensions in the country, they wanted to explore someone who was famous for racism and antisemitism, wrote Rabbi Jordan Millstein, of Temple Sinai of Bergen County.
Millstein said the student was simply following the directions given, which also included dressing up as Hitler for the presentation to the class. The Rabbi said that there was no antisemitic intent on the student or family's part, and they should be spared of all ridicule and criticism, instead saying the incident was "caused by a series of poor and inexcusable decisions by school personnel and district administrators."
Talking with NBC New York on Friday, Millstein said that that student was "trying to understand hate, and then people on social media jumped to conclusions." He said that the parents were so distraught when he met with them, "literally the mother was in tears and I didn't need to hear anything else. They felt so much shame that they felt they had caused this, when in fact they just didn't understand what was going on."
The 11-year-old student has not been back to school since the outrage began, reportedly afraid that her peers are angry and upset. One parent of a classmate said that thankfully is not the case.
"The class I know, they're making cards and talking to each other about what happened, and they really miss their friend and want her to come back to school," said Jaime Ringel Weinberg.
The fracas erupted over an assignment completed last week by a fifth-grade student at Maugham Elementary School. The report, referring to Hitler, said "I was pretty great, wasn't I?" It also noted his unification of Germans and Austrians, saying "I was very popular" with only one reference to the antisemitism that drove the dictator to kill more than six million Jewish people.
The report was posted alongside others for several days in the hallway during April. Its display was met with outrage by parents who say the teacher failed by allowing the student to praise Hitler for his "accomplishments."
Some called for the teacher of the fifth-grade class to be fired, but the school opted to suspend the teacher and principal for now, after initially defending them.
That same day, the regional director for the Anti-Defamation League said the group was shocked at what was being displayed and said it had reached out to the district to ensure that Holocaust education is taught accurately and respectfully.
In its letter to parents, the Tenafly Board of Education said the events "on their face are horrible" and reiterated its zero-tolerance policy for antisemitism or any kind of bigotry in its school system.
"We know the profound and lasting impact this experience will have on our community, and particularly, on our students," the Board wrote in the letter. "We promise that this will be a moment on which to reflect and learn as we continue to mold and shape young minds to be teachers and thoughtful citizens of the world."
"We know we can do better, and we will do better," the letter continued.