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School board defends 5th grade student, teacher over Hitler assignment

A photo of the assignment, which was written from Adolf Hitler's perspective and said "I was very popular and many people followed me," was shared online.
Maugham Elementary School in Tenafly, N.J.
Maugham Elementary School in Tenafly, N.J.Google Maps
/ Source: NBC News

A New Jersey school board is defending an elementary student after their character development assignment on Hitler drew community criticism that it glorified the Holocaust.

The picture of the assignment, from a fifth-grade student at Maugham Elementary School, was shared on social media over Memorial Day weekend, where backlash began to mount. Lori Birk, the woman who posted the photo on Facebook, said the student dressed as Adolf Hitler while presenting the “Character Development project” to their class.

Under accomplishments, the child’s assignment read “I was very popular and many people followed me until I died. My belif in antisemitism drove me to kill more than 6 million Jews,” according to the post.

“This is ignorance, antisemitism and hatred taught at a fifth grade level,” Birk wrote in her post. “Shame on the parents who helped their child dress as Hitler and the teacher who has approved such hatred.”

Birk told NBC News that it was sent to her by a friend who has a child at the school and that the assignment was posted in the school’s hallway. The parent did not wish to be interviewed, Birk said.

The assignment drew widespread attention and was addressed in a statement from Scott Richman, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s New York and New Jersey branch.

“Educational assignments, especially those centered around the history of genocide and oppression, need to be handled carefully and sensitive those who may be personally impacted,” Richman said. “We have reached out to local school officials and look forward to offering our support to the school and district to address this situation and build stronger educational practices moving forward.”

Tenafly Public Schools Superintendent Shauna DeMarco issued a statement Monday that said it was aware of the assignment and investigating.

Demarco then released a joint statement with the school board Tuesday that said the assignment was to look at historical figures who personify good and evil and in that context, “it is unfair to judge any student or teacher in this matter.”

“The assignment (which was given by a teacher who happens to be Jewish) asked students to speak from the perspective of one of these individuals and how they might have perceived and rationalized their actions,” the statement said. “When people saw the students’ projects, which were displayed in the school, they did not understand the assignment, resulting in justifiable concerns.”