TENAFLY, N.J. (NEXSTAR/WPIX) — A New Jersey school district has placed an elementary school principal and teacher on paid leave as officials investigate a school assignment for which a student allegedly presented Adolf Hitler’s greatest accomplishments while dressed as the German dictator.
“As many know, I am conducting an investigation to understand how a 5th grade assignment that violates the district’s curriculum was allowed to happen and remained displayed even after some on the school community expressed concerns about its appropriateness,” Tenafly Public Schools Superintendent Shauna DeMarco wrote in a statement Thursday.
DeMarco said that the district has specific guidelines for teaching difficult and sensitive material to students in a manner that keeps the parents informed and involved.
“This has had a devastating impact on the student involved and their family, who have been thrown into turmoil through no fault of their own,” DeMarco wrote. “It has also been incredibly painful for our Jewish community members in the face of increasing instances of antisemitism around the country.”
She added that an initial review of the incident “indicates that the curriculum and learning standards were not appropriately implemented and an attempt to individualize the project resulted in the student receiving misguided instruction from the teacher. The posting of the resulting project was offensive and inappropriate and directly violated the school Board’s policies.”
DeMarco said she would also be looking into why the principal didn’t act after parents and others raised concerns.
A photo of the completed character development assignment was posted on Facebook by Lori Birk on Sunday. The project was written in first-person narrative as if the student was Hitler.
“My greatest accomplishment was uniting a great mass of German and Austrian people behind me. I rose to power as the leader of the Nazi Party, becoming chancellor in 1933 and then assuming the title of führer und reichskanzler in 1934,” the assignment read. “Führer and reichskanzler means leader and chancellor. I was pretty great, wasn’t I? I was very popular and many people followed me until I died. My belief in antisemitism drove me to kill more than 6 million Jews.”
According to Birk, it was written by a fifth-grader and their choice of topic for the assignment was approved by the teacher prior to the presentation.
“Please read – as this was hanging in the Maugham School hallway in Tenafly. This is ignorance, antisemitism and hatred taught at a fifth grade level,” Birk wrote.
The one-page essay was posted on a school display board for more than a week, parents said.
The assignment resulted in a municipal investigation, as well as increased security at the school, and at the school district offices.
One parent at the school called the situation “appalling.”
Tracy Stevens, another parent at the school, reacted similarly: “I’m very shocked myself to hear about what went on. Very surprised.”
The assignment, according to parents, included having the children dress up as the historical figure they’d chosen, whether the person they’d chosen to depict was famous or infamous.
Mark Zinna, the mayor of Tenafly, said that the project was poorly carried out.
“The adults involved in allowing this to happen really messed up,” Zinna said at a news conference at borough hall early Tuesday afternoon. “All the fifth grade classes were studying famous people in history. How it was presented in a positive light is really concerning.”
The executive director of the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey said that the way the assignment played out was concerning.
“Every Jew in this town should be upset by the Adolf Hitler post,” Jason Shames said, in a news conference outside of the school on Tuesday afternoon. “No question that that is as offensive to us as it could ever get.”
The assignment was made back in April, but comments about it started spreading on social media in recent days among parents. It then spread even further online.
DeMarco wrote in part Tuesday that she understands why “tensions are running high and that our community is extremely upset. We share those feelings.”
However, some residents of this town of 14,600 people warn against a rush to judgment.
“I’m not saying it’s a good thing,” said a mother who asked to not be identified. “I condemn it, but the child didn’t know.”
The head of the Jewish Federation said that a full investigation should run its course.
“Rushing to judgment here is harming the situation,” Shames said. “We need to be pretty careful about the fact that we’re talking about a 10 year-old child.
The investigation will center on the adults involved in the situation, according to the mayor.