Maugham Elementary School Adolf Hitler assignment controversy
In early April 2021, a fifth-grade teacher at Maugham Elementary School, a public grammar school in Tenafly, New Jersey, instructed a 5th grade student to dress up as Adolf Hitler and to write a first-person essay from the perspective of the Nazi leader touting his "accomplishments" as a part of a class assignment. In May 2021, the details of the school assignment became known to the public, leading to outrage in the community, which has a substantial Jewish population. After initially defending the teacher and the school's actions, the board of Tenafly Public Schools suspended the teacher and the principal of the school with pay and opened an investigation into the incident.
Tenafly, New Jersey is a borough within Bergen County, New Jersey. Bergen county has one of the largest Jewish populations within the United States, and Tenafly is nicknamed "Little Tel Aviv" owing to its particularly sizeable Israeli and Jewish populations. Maugham Elementary School is an elementary school within the Tenafly Public Schools district, which serves students living in the Borough of Tenafly. The Post Millennial reports that parents describe the school district as "40% Jewish". Greater than 3% of households in the borough speak Hebrew at home.
A fifth-grade teacher working at Maughan Elementary School created and assigned was a "character development project" in which students would be asked to write from the perspective of notable individual. Students were directed to dress up as a historical figure and to write an essay from that historical figure's perspective. These characters included Amelia Earhart, Neil Armstrong, and Jim Carrey.
Student assigned to Adolf Hitler
One student's historical character was that of Adolf Hitler. The student, whose historical character was approved by the teacher who issued the assignment, proceeded to write a biography of Hitler that glorified the Nazi leader, stated that Hitler's "greatest accomplishment was uniting a great mass of German and Austrian people" in his support, framed the Holocaust in a positive light, and added that Hitler was "pretty great". The student was instructed by the teacher to dress up as Hitler for a presentation that the student made to the rest of the fifth-grade class. After the presentation was made, the student's essay was displayed publicly within the school's hallway during the month of April.
Becoming public knowledge
While the assignment and presentation took place in April, the fact that a fifth-grade student dressed up as Hitler and wrote an essay praising the dictator did not become known until late May when a parent posted a screenshot of the pencil-written essay on Facebook. News regarding the essay and the student dressing up as Hitler emerged during a time where targeted antisemitic violence within the United States had been on the rise.
School district response
As the news of the assignment became public, the board of Tenafly Public Schools District initially defended the teacher, writing in a statement that the teacher who made the assignment "happens to be Jewish" and that community members "did not understand the assignment" correctly. At the time, the school's superintendent wrote that "it is unfair to judge any student or teacher in this matter" and that those outraged by the assignment had taken the assignment "out of context." The district stated that the assignment was to focus on a historical figure that personified good or evil.
One day after the superintendent's statement was made in defense of the teacher who created the assignment, the school district suspended the teacher and the school's principal with pay pending the outcome of the investigation. At that time, the district told parents that the assignment was not in compliance with the district's curriculum standards.
News of the assignment, and the display of the student's essay in the school's hallway for several weeks beginning in early April, was widely met with shock and outrage. The regional director of the Anti-Defamation League for New York and New Jersey expressed shock that a student had been given this assignment and publicly condemned the teacher for issuing it.
Local Jewish groups sharply criticized the school and the school district, writing that the school acted with "poor and inexcusable judgment" and was failing to be transparent in the aftermath of the incident. A Tenafly rabbi told The Jewish Standard that "it boggles the mind that a teacher would... let a student do a project on Hitler’s accomplishments, as if he were a great leader" and that it was "an insult not only to Jews but also to all Americans, and a terrible error in judgment, to have a student do this project." Another local Jewish community leader told the newspaper that "[r]egardless of the educational intent here, the teacher failed to recognize the profound impact this can have on students, family members and others in our community who could perceive this project as condoning or even glorifying the atrocities of one of the most evil individuals in world history."
Local Jewish groups defended the student and the student's family after the family was targeted, writing that harm caused by vitriol directed towards the 11-year old student was undeserved and that neither the student nor the student's family acted with antisemitic intent. The school board stated that it had taken actions to defend the student after local groups determined that the student did not act with antisemitic intent.
A petition was circulated in support of the teacher who had issued the assignment and many parents spoke in support of the student, teacher, and principal during a school board meeting that took place shortly after the controversy began. The editorial board of The Newark Star-Ledger defended the teacher and the student, writing that "the teacher succeeded" in teaching about the Holocaust and that "context matters" when evaluating the assignment. In an opinion piece published by The Record, writer Mary Chao said that the outrage over the assignment was described by Asian-American parents as the result of cultural misunderstanding.
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