In the wake of an essay assignment given to Rialto Unified eighth-graders, asking them to argue for or against the existence of the Holocaust, the chairman of the state’s Jewish legislative caucus wants to see funding restored to a program that taught tolerance to youngsters.
Sen. Marty Block, D-San Diego, said Monday that bringing back Tools for Tolerance — a program through the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, which teaches the state’s students about racism and its consequences — is a small price to pay to promote tolerance.
Block would like to see the state return to paying $2 million a year to make the program available to schools statewide.
“Coming out of the (state’s $239 billion) budget, it’s barely anything,” Block said.
“The program is pretty effective, I think, in teaching students about man’s inhumanity to man and how not to repeat it,” he said.
“I heard about it on the floor of the Senate,” Block said. “(Sen.) Norma Torres came to me and asked me if I’d heard about it.”
It was the morning of May 5, when the story first hit the papers and less than 12 hours after the news had gone online.
“It was pretty disturbing,” said Torres, D-Chino Hills. She first saw the news of the assignment on Sunday night, via Twitter. “Sleepy as I was, I couldn’t believe it. I had to read the article a couple of times to understand what was really happening.”
The essay assignment, developed by teachers and coordinated at the district headquarters level, asked eighth-graders whether the Holocaust occurred or not.
The school board apologized during an emergency meeting on May 7. The assignment was completed by roughly 2,000 eighth-graders in April. According to Associate Superintendent for Educational Services Susan Levine, her office received no complaints, either from teachers or students, prior to the assignment making the news. Documents obtained by the newspaper show the district had been contacted by a woman regarding the assignment earlier in the week before the news broke.
Historians estimate 6 million Jews — about 2 of every 3 in Europe — were killed by the Nazi regime between 1933 and 1945. In some European countries, including Germany, Holocaust denial is a crime punishable by incarceration.
Torres doesn’t believe there was any malice on the part of Rialto Unified officials.
“They found themselves in a place that they couldn’t believe it themselves,” she said. “I think that’s why you saw the denial initially: ‘We don’t believe in hate.’”
But officials hurt themselves with their initial defenses of the assignment.
“It’s very hard to back away from that because it was difficult for them to come out and say ‘we were wrong,’” Torres said. “I think we’re going to have to continue to watch them very closely; I don’t think we can afford to walk away just yet.”
They didn’t have to in those initial days.
“The more we found (online), the more disturbing it was,” Block said. “I’ve never heard of anything like this before.”
Block and his team were not impressed by the district’s initial responses to inquiries about the project.
“We were deciding then what action might be taken, but then (the Rialto Unified school board) had their emergency board meeting and Sen. Torres attended that meeting,” he said. “We got the sense since then that the board is sincerely sorry that it happened and won’t happen again.”
In addition to his role in the Jewish Caucus, Block is the chair of the Senate budget subcommittee, which deals with education financing, and in that role, he hopes to restore funding for the education program cut in recent years.
“Tools for Tolerance is a program that comes out of the Museum of Tolerance and is used by a lot of schools in California,” he said.
The senators don’t know if the Legislature has any other role to play in the aftermath of the assignment, but they both hope the international coverage of the project will serve as a teachable moment for other school districts.
“It’s very difficult to legislate common sense,” Torres said. “There’s only so much that we can do through legislation, but obviously, the Jewish Caucus and my office are in agreement that … we have to work to make sure the schools are doing right by our children. It starts with education.”
“I think the First Amendment here pretty much protects those kinds of opinions; it just becomes a matter of good judgement,” he said. “We have a tremendous lack of critical thinking on behalf of administrators and teachers.”
Torres called on members of the Rialto community to keep an eye on what local officials are doing.
“We can’t afford for the parents and citizens to not be involved in their education,” she said. “They’re part of the solution. Not just at the ballot box, but attending meetings, demanding.”
For the most part, though, California’s teachers are capable of creating quality assignments, even on controversial topics, Block said.
“We don’t want to put a straitjacket on teachers who are, in good faith, creating assignments for students,” he said. “The vast majority of things that are assigned don’t bring us to this.”
Torres called the district sending students and teachers to visit the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles in the wake of the Holocaust assignment a “step in the right direction.”
“An assignment like this doesn’t get fixed in one day,” she said. “It’s going to have to happen over a couple of years, at least.”
A study released by the Anti-Defamation League last month said that although more than half of the people in the world have heard of the Holocaust, two-thirds of those surveyed believe it’s a myth or has been greatly exaggerated.