US school district offers ‘opt out’ option for Holocaust survivor testimony

After Fairfax County Public Schools email states students can skip presentation, Jewish federation says it was only meant for Jews due to previous ‘bullying, teasing, taunting’

The front of James Fenimore Cooper Middle School, part of Fairfax County Public Schools (CC BY G. Edward Johnson, Own work).
The front of James Fenimore Cooper Middle School, part of Fairfax County Public Schools (CC BY G. Edward Johnson, Own work).

Students in Fairfax County, Virginia, one of the largest public school districts in the United States, will be permitted to opt out of attending a presentation by a Holocaust survivor as part of the World War II history curriculum.

Adele Scalia, whose child is in 7th grade at Fairfax’s Cooper Middle School, shared an excerpt from an email from school administration on X on Friday.

“We understand that all students have different experiences,” the email read. “If you prefer to opt your child out from participating this presentation, please email your child’s history teacher and they will be provided with an alternate assignment.”

In a statement to the press, FCPS explained that students receive a visit from a Holocaust survivor every year as a routine part of their curriculum.

“Each year, Cooper MS invites a Holocaust survivor to speak with students to affirm meaningful learning experiences that increase representation of all identity groups that are essential to student learning,” it said.

“Some Jewish students have previously expressed discomfort while engaging in dialogue around this visit. 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 informed decision on behalf of their student.”

Scalia, according to a report in the conservative news outlet the Daily Wire, was not convinced that the change was an effort to protect Jewish students, concluding instead that it was an antisemitic response to the ongoing Israel-Hamas war.

“If the email had said ‘We understand that some students are very sensitive and Mrs. X’s stories may be disturbing and traumatizing to them…’ I would have given them the benefit of the doubt. But it didn’t,” Scalia wrote on X.

Jennifer Katz, founding member of United Against Anti-Semitism and parent of two FCPS students, told the Daily Wire that, in her opinion, “to make a blanket opt out option is misguided and wrong.”

“If a specific student is directly tied to the Holocaust or a Holocaust survivor, and the topic is too sensitive for them, then it can be handled on an individual basis,” she clarified, emphasizing that in today’s “hostile climate for… Jewish students nationwide,” Holocaust education is as vital as ever.

Following the Daily Wire story, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington acknowledged the opt out but also said it was only meant for Jewish students.

“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,” the group’s associate director Guila Franklin Siegel said in a statement,

“In JCRC’s extensive experience working with local schools, we have heard these concerns time and again from Jewish families. 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.”

The Fairfax Country Public Schools have struggled in recent months with pro-Palestinian rhetoric among students that subsequently devolved into antisemitism.

In November, FCPS’s Langley High School made local news when an image circulated of students holding up a drawing of a US flag with swastikas for stars and the words “Free Palestine” written on one of the stripes.

The incident occurred, according to the Fairfax County Times, during a meeting of the school’s Muslim Student Association.

The local news outlet added that Langley students also staged a pro-Palestine walkout, which featured another sign with swastikas on it.

The school suspended both the student who drew the US flag picture and the classmate accused of “leaking” the photo to the public.

According to January data from the Anti-Defamation League, antisemitic incidents have spiked in the US and worldwide since the outbreak of the Israel-Hamas war, which began on October 7 when thousands of Hamas terrorists invaded southern Israel from Gaza, killing some 1,200 people and taking 253 hostages.

The ADL said two-thirds of antisemitic incidents “included verbal, written, or contextual references to Israel or Zionism.”

JTA contributed to this report.

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