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Jewish Southlake residents on Holocaust remark: 'There are not two sides'

Monday’s school board meeting was the first time residents had a public forum to raise concerns about the school administrator's comment.
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At a tense school board meeting Monday night in Southlake, Texas, a former student gave painful testimony about antisemitic bullying that he said he endured in the Carroll Independent School District. 

Teachers grew emotional as they described feeling unsupported and under attack.  

And many parents defended a district administrator who told teachers to offer students books showing “opposing” perspectives on the Holocaust, saying she was trying to follow a problematic new state law, while also condemning her interpretation of that law.

The administrator’s comment, secretly recorded by a Carroll staff member during a training session this month and shared with NBC News, sparked international outrage and put a spotlight on a new Texas law that requires teachers to present multiple perspectives when discussing “widely debated and currently controversial” issues. The administrator, Gina Peddy, the school district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, has not replied to messages requesting comment. 

In response to NBC News’ coverage of Peddy’s remark, Carroll’s superintendent, Lane Ledbetter, issued an apology last week, acknowledging that there “are not two sides of the Holocaust” and pledging to work with his staff to clarify the district’s policy.

Monday’s school board meeting was the first time Southlake residents had a public forum to raise concerns about Peddy’s comment. More than 50 speakers addressed the board, many demanding that the district take steps to repair its reputation. 

Jake Berman, a Jewish former student, told board members that the bullying he endured in the district two decades ago was so severe that he contemplated suicide. His parents eventually pulled him out of the school system.

“I received everything from jokes about my nose to gas chambers, all while studying for my bar mitzvah,” said Berman, adding that he believed Peddy’s comment exposed the problem with new laws that limit how teachers talk about racism and other controversial subjects. “The facts are that there are not two sides of the Holocaust. The Nazis systematically killed millions of people. There are not two sides of slavery. White Europeans enslaved Black Africans in this country until June 19, 1865, a moment we’re barely 150 years removed from.”

A Jewish parent, Rob Forst, described himself as a descendant of Holocaust survivors and said his family members are questioning whether they want to stay in Southlake. He called on Ledbetter to issue a stronger condemnation of Peddy’s comment, calling the remarks “completely unacceptable.”

Peddy’s comment came during a teacher training session two weeks ago that was focused on which books teachers can keep in their classroom libraries. The district, to comply with the new Texas law, known as Senate Bill 3, had sent teachers a rubric asking them to grade books based on whether they provide multiple perspectives and to set aside any that present singular, dominant narratives “in such a way that it ... may be considered offensive.”

After teachers complained that the rules would force them to get rid of children’s books focused on racism, Peddy offered an example, according to a recording of the training made by a staff member and shared with NBC News.

“Make sure that if you have a book on the Holocaust,” Peddy said, “that you have one that has an opposing, that has other perspectives.” 

“How do you oppose the Holocaust?” a teacher asked in response. 

“Believe me,” Peddy said. “That’s come up.”

A school district spokeswoman initially said Peddy’s advice was the result of the district’s efforts to comply with Senate Bill 3. State Sen. Bryan Hughes, an East Texas Republican who wrote the bill, denied that it requires teachers to provide opposing views about what he called matters of “good and evil” or to get rid of books that offer only one perspective on the Holocaust. 

“That’s not what the bill says,” Hughes said last week. “I’m glad we can have this discussion to help elucidate what the bill says, because that’s not what the bill says." 

Many residents defended Peddy at Monday’s meeting while not endorsing her remarks. Without naming her, because speakers during public comment sessions at the school board are barred from naming particular district employees, the residents described the administrator in the recording as a thoughtful and caring educator who loves students and supports teachers. One parent said the administrator was only trying to help teachers and was being “thrown under the bus” for implementing the district’s policy.

“The administrator is not a Holocaust denier,” resident Katy Pratt said. “She made a mistake under duress. The focus should be on the law, not the administrator.” 

The debate in Southlake over which books should be allowed in classrooms is part of a broader national movement led by parents opposed to lessons about racism, history and LGBTQ issues that some conservatives have falsely branded as critical race theory. A group of Southlake parents has been fighting for more than a year to block new diversity and inclusion programs at Carroll, one of the top-ranked school districts in Texas. 

Late last year, one of those parents complained when her daughter brought home a copy of “This Book Is Anti-Racist” by Tiffany Jewell from her fourth grade teacher’s class library. The mother complained about how the teacher responded to her concerns. Carroll administrators investigated and decided against disciplining the teacher. 

But on Oct. 4, the school board voted 3-2 to overturn the district’s decision and formally reprimanded the teacher, setting off unease among teachers who said they fear that the board will not protect them if parents complain about books in their classes.

At the start of Monday’s meeting, school board President Michelle Moore said the board’s disciplinary vote was not about the anti-racism book, saying it was a personnel matter. (Moore had voted against disciplining the teacher.)

“As a district, we must all work together to figure out how best to apply the laws enacted by the Legislature,” Moore said. “Our message to our curriculum and instructional staff and teachers is that we support you and understand the challenges that lie ahead of you.”

Several teachers told the board that its vote to discipline one of their colleagues and the district’s guidance about the books they can keep in classrooms have shaken their confidence in the school system.

“Every day I treat my students and their families with kindness and respect and allow my students to speak their truth without fear,” fourth grade teacher Lindsey Garcia said, choking up as she spoke. “I only wish that same courtesy would be extended to all my fellow educators and me.”

Others blamed the media attention for causing division in the community.

“I actually think Southlake is a great place,” resident Kathy Del Calvo said. “And I hate the division that’s going on. It’s never-ending.”