By Philissa Cramer
(JTA) — Teachers in Carroll Independent School District were told last week that a new state law requiring them to present multiple perspectives about “widely debated and currently controversial” issues meant they needed to make “opposing” views on the Holocaust available to students.
NBC News obtained an audio recording of the official, the CISD’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, speaking to the teachers about how to work under the constraints of the new law, known as House Bill 3979. The law was passed amid a wave of efforts in Republican-led statehouses to prevent “critical race theory,” “divisive” topics and concepts related to race and bias from being taught to children.
“Just try to remember the concepts of 3979,” Gina Peddy said in the recording. “Make sure that if, if you have a book on the Holocaust that you have one that has an opposing — that has other perspectives.”
Gasps and sounds of nervous laughter can be heard on the recording, as one teacher asks aloud, “How do you oppose the Holocaust?”
Peddy responds: “Believe me. That’s come up.”
A Texas lawmaker who drafted a new version of the bill told NBC News that matters of “good and evil” are not subject to the education legislation.
Local Jewish leaders and organizations were quick to respond after the news broke Thursday.
On Thursday evening Rabbi Charlie Cytron Walker spoke with CISD Superintendent, Dr. Lane Ledbetter and shared the distress in our community over the comments. “We had a productive conversation,” Cytron Walker wrote to his congregants in an email.
He said he urged CISD “to issue an unequivocal statement clarifying their views on the Holocaust for the whole community.” He also wrote that he and the superintendant had spoken about strengthening the relationship between CISD and the ADL to avoid future mistakes.
“Their goal and our goal is a safe and secure learning environment for all of our children,” wrote Cytron Walker.
Later Thursday evening, Ledbetter issued a statement on CISD’s social media platforms.
“As the superintendent of schools, I express my sincere apology regarding the online article and news story released today. During the conversations with teachers during last week’s meeting, the comments made were in no way to convey that the Holocaust was anything less than a terrible event in history,” the statement read. “As we continue to work through implementation of [House Bill] 3979, we also understand this bill does not require an opposing viewpoint on historical facts. As a district, we will work to add clarity to our expectations for teachers and once again apologize for any hurt or confusion this has caused.”
The Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum issued a statement Friday signed by Mary Pat Higgins, president and CEO, and Mark Zilbermann, board chair. The statement said that the DHHRM was “appalled” to learn of the Peddy’s advice to teachers.
“The challenge with legislation limiting educators’ ability to teach historical fact is the question of who decides if an issue is controversial or whether contending perspectives are worthy of instruction. The Holocaust is one of the world’s most well-documented historical events. Our Holocaust Survivors are a living testament to the accuracy of the history we teach at our museum — the deliberate, cruel, and systematic murder of 6 million Jews,” the DHHRM statement explained.
The Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas its Jewish Community Relations Council the Rabbinic Association of Greater Dallas issued a joint statement Friday concurring with the DHHRM’s assessment adding,“Those who seek to deny the facts of the purposeful deaths of the 6 million Jews and millions of other innocent souls, and the destruction of countless communities, must not be given equal footing in the common places of historical dialogue. While we may debate the meaning of these events, we must not debate the veracity of their existence.
“We urge all those who care about the accurate teaching of historical events to support teachers who are trying their best, under extraordinary circumstances, to teach these important subjects and to speak out against anyone who would deny or minimize the pain and suffering of peoples in any historical era. Texans deserve so much more. We should do no less.”
But the possibility that the wave of conservative education legislation could get in the way of Holocaust education crossed the minds of education observers in at least some places over the last year.
“Under this law, it would be impossible to teach that Nazi Germany was inherently anti-Semitic, or that the Third Reich oppressed Jews simply because they were Jews, because that would identify Nazis as inherently biased and Jews as inherently and systemically oppressed,” Russel Neiss, a Jewish educator in St Louis, wrote in the St. Louis Jewish Light in May about legislation that had been proposed in Missouri. Lawmakers there are continuing to push for anti-critical race theory rules for schools.
The episode comes a year after a Florida school district fired a principal — twice — who told a parent that he could not say the Holocaust was “an actual, factual event” because not all parents shared the same belief. Florida’s school board has since enacted a ban on Holocaust denial in schools — as part of a ban on teaching critical race theory.
In Texas, the recording suggests that Peddy does not necessarily support the new law but does anticipate conflicts over its enforcement. Four days before the training, the Carroll school board had overturned a district ruling and formally reprimanded a teacher who drew a parent complaint for keeping an anti-racism book in her classroom.
At one point in the recording, a teacher says she is “terrified.” At another point, an educator asks whether “Number the Stars,” the classic Holocaust novel, would require another book to balance out. Peddy does not address that question on the recording.
“You are professionals. We hired you as professionals. We trust you with our children,” Peddy tells the teachers prior to offering the Holocaust book example. “So if you think the book is OK, then let’s go with it. And whatever happens, we will fight it together.”
TJP staff contributed to this report.