Virginia School District Will Let Students Opt out of Holocaust Lesson, Citing Jewish Students’ ‘Trauma’

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Andrew Lapin | JTA.org

A school district in suburban Virginia is drawing backlash for announcing that middle school students could opt out of a talk by a Holocaust survivor on Monday, March 18.

Critics of the school connected the announcement with widespread reports of spiking antisemitism in K-12 schools following the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war. But the school denied those claims, later announcing that the opt-out was specifically intended to help Jewish students.

Fairfax County Public Schools reportedly told parents last week, “We understand that all students have different experiences. If you prefer to opt your child out from participating in this presentation, please email your child’s history teacher and they will be provided an alternate assignment.”

The wording confused some district parents. Adele Scalia, mother of a seventh grader and daughter-in-law of former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who shared portions of the message on social media. “What does that even mean?” Scalia wrote about the district’s wording.

Scalia later made clear that she thought the school’s announcement enabled antisemitism. When another user said the message meant, “​​But if you hate Jews, then your kid doesn’t have to be there,” Scalia replied, “Exactly this.”

But in a Monday statement to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, a district representative said it gave parents the opt-out option not in order to appease antisemites but due to feedback it has received in the past from Jewish students.

District representatives also told JTA the opt-out had no connection to the Israel-Hamas war.

“From past experience, some Jewish students at Cooper Middle School have expressed trauma about this visit from a Holocaust survivor,” the district representative wrote. “For that reason, school leadership makes every effort to partner with families of these students, who are 12 and 13 years old, to keep them informed. This opt-out allows the family the opportunity to make the best decision on behalf of their student.”

The Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington issued its own statement Tuesday, after the lesson had taken place, confirming that the district’s decision to let students opt out was intended to help Jewish students. Such students have experienced antisemitic bullying and harassment following past Holocaust lessons in the district, the council said.

“Recent media reports have suggested that Cooper school officials offered an opt-out to excuse non-Jewish students from learning about the Holocaust. These reports are erroneous,” Guila Franklin Siegel, the JCRC’s associate director, said in a statement.

“Rather, as Fairfax County Public Schools noted in its response, the opt-out was designed specifically for Jewish families due to Jewish children in the past being subjected to bullying, teasing, taunting, and other forms of unacceptable behavior specifically during Holocaust-related lessons and programming.”

“It is deeply disturbing that antisemitic harassment continues, and that schools must in some cases resort to these types of measures in an attempt to protect Jewish children,” she said, adding that no students opted out of the talk by Frank Cohn, a Holocaust survivor and U.S. military veteran.

Virginia has a statewide mandate to teach the Holocaust to middle and high school students. But Holocaust educators have long debated whether it’s appropriate to teach the subject to middle-schoolers, with some believing — in an echo of Fairfax’s statement — that the material may be too traumatic for young students.

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