Dozens of California middle-school students questioned whether the Holocaust actually happened during a controversial assignment earlier this year.
Administrators for the Rialto Unified School District agreed to revise the assignment after it drew international attention in May, and they responded to criticism by arguing that none of the students who completed the essay questioned or denied the Holocaust.
But The San Bernardino County Sun surveyed the eight-grade students’ work and found many of them expressed doubts about the Holocaust or denied outright that it had happened.
In some cases, students earned good scores for arguing the Holocaust never took place, and teachers praised their reasoning.
“I believe the event was fake, according to source 2 the event was exhaggerated,” one student wrote. (The newspaper retained students’ and teachers’ grammar and spelling.) “I felt that was strong enogh evidence to persuade me the event was a hoax.”
That student earned 23 points out of 30, with points taken off for failure to address counterclaims and capitalization and punctuation errors.
“(Y)ou did well using the evidence to support your claim,” the student’s teacher commented.
About 2,000 eighth-graders were asked to research arguments made about the Holocaust and write an argumentative essay explaining whether they believe the Nazis, in fact, systematically killed 6 million European Jews between 1933 and 1945.
School officials initially defended the assignment, saying it was intended to teach teens to evaluate the quality of evidence made by opponents or advocates of a topic.
"When tragic events occur in history, there is often debate about their actual existence,” the assignment says. “For example, some people claim the Holocaust is not an actual historical event, but instead is a propaganda tool that was used for political and monetary gain.”
Students are required to cite textual evidence in the assignment and address rebuttals to the claims they make themselves.
“Explain whether or not you believe the Holocaust was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain,” the students are advised.
After the assignment became public, the district drew strong criticism from angry parents, Jewish advocacy groups, lawmakers, and scholars.
Some of those same critics they were sickened by revelations that students garnered praise for arguing the Holocaust never took place.
“Students got high praise and grades for writing that the Holocaust was a hoax. I’m sick about that, I’m sick about that,” said Rabbi Suzanne Singer of Temple Beth El in Riverside. “It’s worse than I thought it was.”
The newspaper found at least 50 essays denied or doubted the Holocaust after examining hundreds of pages of student work provided in PDF files.
Many students who agreed the Holocaust occurred claimed there were good reasons to doubt it or that some elements of the historical record were hoaxes.
Students were given printouts from the websites About.com, History.com, and the Holocaust denial site Bible Believers.org.au as part of an assigned reading of “The Diary of Anne Frank.”
The claims made in the assignment were not specifically addressed in the provided materials, and, as a result, the newspaper found that some students concluded “The Diary of Anne Frank” was a hoax and that there was no evidence that any Jewish people were executed in gas chambers at German concentration camps.
“(I)f gassing would have occurred everyone (nearby) would have died, because the floors had cracks in the floor and holes in the wall,” one student wrote, echoing the claims of one prominent Holocaust denier.
The students were asked to complete the assignment in class and were not given Internet access, which would have allowed them to easily debunk the Holocaust denial claims.
The district’s associate superintendent claimed in May that administrators hadn’t found any student essays denying the Holocaust.
An attorney for the district said Friday, after the newspaper examined the essays, that administrators had not done their own official accounting of how many students denied the historical event.
“It hasn’t been tabulated that we know of,” said Rialto Unified attorney William P. Curley.
[Image: Diverse group of middle-school children in class via Shutterstock]