Northern Va. school district allows Jewish students to skip Holocaust lecture for fear of bullying

The local Jewish group that organized the talk called it ‘gaslighting’ for school officials to put the onus on Jewish students

Senior students sit in a cafeteria (Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

A public middle school in Northern Virginia’s Fairfax County gave parents the option to keep their children home from school on Tuesday, the day of a planned speech by a Holocaust survivor, out of fear that Jewish students would face bullying.

Ultimately, no students opted out of the talk by Frank Cohn, a Holocaust survivor who later served in the U.S. Army for 35 years, at Cooper Middle School in McLean, an affluent suburb of Washington. But the Jewish advocacy group that organized the event accused the school of “gaslighting” by allowing Jewish students to opt out, rather than addressing antisemitism. 

“We would not have handled this issue in the way that the principal at Cooper Middle School did,” said Guila Franklin Siegel, associate director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington. “If the principal had reached out to us, and we’re sorry that didn’t happen, we would have said, ‘No, that’s not the answer.’ The answer to antisemitic harassment connected to Holocaust education is not for the Jewish kids to stay home.”

The message from the school to parents spread on the social media platform X when a parent alleged that the school’s intent was to allow non-Jewish children to skip learning about the Holocaust. But it was actually the opposite — an attempt, “albeit an ill-advised attempt, to be responsive to the concerns of Jewish parents in past years,” said Siegel. 

Since 2017, the school has invited a Holocaust survivor or related guest speaker to address students as they learn about the Holocaust. “Several years ago, several Jewish students at Cooper Middle School expressed anxiety about this visit,” Steven Brasley, a spokesperson for Fairfax County Public Schools, told Jewish Insider in a statement. Students are not able to opt out of Holocaust lessons that are in the curriculum, but parents can choose to keep their kids home for the guest speakers.

“We apologize if this notification led anyone to believe that we do not value these important learning opportunities, which Cooper Middle School has been providing for many years, with few, if any opt-outs,” Brasley said. 

The correct response, according to Siegel, would have been better preparation before the event with the Holocaust survivor. 

“It’s setting behavioral expectations and more importantly, more globally, it’s effecting long-term cultural change in school buildings. We’ve been dealing with this problem for years,” said Siegel. As an example, she shared the story of an area public school in a different district showing “Schindler’s List” to high school students several years ago, without appropriate discussion beforehand.

“During the screening of the film, during scenes related to the gas chambers, when Jewish women were unclothed, kids started laughing, they started hooting, they just didn’t have a sense of the gravity of the situation,” said Siegel. “The Jewish kids who were present were completely traumatized. We hear about this over and over again.”

This kind of bullying and inappropriate behavior among teenagers is not limited just to the Holocaust. But the response from the school was unique. 

“These kinds of things also happen when there are lessons about slavery, and no one is sending notices out to Black families saying you can opt out,” said Siegel. “All of this is putting the onus on the victim.”

Subscribe now to
the Daily Kickoff

The politics and business news you need to stay up to date, delivered each morning in a must-read newsletter.