Furor over school essay assignment questioning whether Holocaust happened


Rialto, CA (CBS) - The school board of a Southern California district where students were told to write an essay on whether they believe the Holocaust really happened said at a packed public meeting Wednesday night that it was a "horribly inappropriate" assignment for which the board takes "full responsibility."

Rialto Unified School Board president Joanne Gilbert read the remarks after a brief closed session that followed a heated public meeting where Jewish groups, tolerance organizations and community leaders denounced the assignment.

The initial assignment given to eighth-graders was to do some research and write an essay explaining whether they believed the Holocaust was a real historical event or a political scheme to influence public emotion and gain. It was developed in December by a group of language arts teachers planning a unit on "The Diary of Anne Frank."

The district had already withdrawn the assignment and called it an error, but the school board went much further in its denunciation Wednesday night, and promised broader action to prevent similar incidents, including sensitivity training for eighth-graders at the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles..

"I don't understand why a fact of history would be a matter for debate," said Rabbi Suzanne Singer of Temple Beth El in Riverside, according to the San Bernardino Sun.

State Senator Norma Torres, who represents the area and was one of several political officials in attendance, urged the board to make a strong statement.

"Hate has no place in Rialto," Torres said. "Hate has no place in our classrooms."

Separately, authorities said Wednesday that death threats against Rialto district school officials made in connection with the assignment came from a man living in Connecticut.

Rialto Police Capt. Randy DeAnda told the station a 47-year-old man made the alleged threats via two phone calls using land lines.

DeAnda said the man hasn't been arrested and the case has been turned over to a district attorney to see if there is enough evidence to file charges.

The suspect isn't being named, since the investigation is on-going, DeAnda said.

The Connecticut man reportedly read about the controversial essay assignment on social media.

Police said the man "threatened to use guns and knives to hurt two school officials."

© 2014 CBS Interactive Inc. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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