NORTH SMITHFIELD – Teachers from North Smithfield High School are condemning both the commentary and lack of response regarding a statement made at a School Committee meeting last month invoking the Holocaust during testimony against mask mandates.
Resident Danielle Ferguson, who recently signed on to a lawsuit against Gov. Dan McKee, along with 15 other local families opposed to Rhode Island’s student mask mandate, spoke before the committee at their meeting on Tuesday, Aug. 17, which brought out hours of passionate and often contentious commentary on the issue.
Ferguson can be heard making the comment in question at one hour eight minutes and 48 seconds into the meeting video, found here. She states that the Delta variant of the COVID-19 virus is being used by the government to keep people fearful and take away their rights.
“I just want you to know that the Jews got on the bus willingly,” Ferguson added, speaking to a room of educators and local parents there to talk on the issue.
Chairman James Lombardi can be heard in the background saying “all right, come on,” in reaction to her statement.
A letter signed by 27 North Smithfield High School teachers dated Friday, Sept. 10, condemned both that statement – and lack of adequate response to the comparison. The letter notes that the incident was reported to the Anti-Defamation League, whose mission is to ‘stop the denunciation of Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment for all.”
ADL, a national organization founded in 1913, issued a statement on the matter, noting the league is “deeply concerned,” with the statements made invoking the Holocaust – and blaming the victims – to oppose mask mandates.
“The absence of any criticism or concern over the use of that misguided analogy is all the more troubling,” the statement notes. “The comparison of mask mandates in schools to the events of the Holocaust is deeply offensive and inappropriate, and trivializes and delegitimizes the memory of the victims and stories of survivors.”
“We oppose the offensive and unacceptable Holocaust comparisons that have been weaponized in conversations about vaccines and masks across the nation,” it notes.
For their part, the teachers point out that they encourage debate in the classroom, and would never allow such comment to go unchecked.
“As educators in the North Smithfield School Department, it is, at the very least, both offensive and astonishing that this statement was made without any response whatsoever,” the letter states. “Our students are taught to participate in debate with respect, decorum, civility, and decency. Using the victims of the Holocaust to make a point unrelated to the topic being discussed would not be tolerated in a North Smithfield classroom and should not be met with silence by members of the committee.”
The letter concludes by asking that if such a “disgraceful’ statement is ever made again at a meeting, the committee members consider condemning it.
The letter was addressed at the start of the School Committee meeting on Tuesday, Sept. 21, following a tearful reading by teacher Christine Welch.
Member Peg Votta said she agrees with the teachers.
“We tell kids when they see something say something – and we didn’t,” said Votta. “On my watch I will not let that happen again.”
Committee Vice Chairwoman Jean Meo agreed.
“The teachers were right to call us out,” Meo said. “Shame on us.”
Member Paul Jones said the committee probably should have said, “That’s wrong. Stop it. Sit down.”
“I think it should be very clear what that parent said is not reflective of what the wider community thinks,” Jones said.
Lombardi pointed out the he hit the gavel following the comment and, “asked the person to move on.”
“I was very saddened that we disappointed her, and others in the community,” he said of Welch. “We try very hard to bring the community together and build relationships. A public hearing is complex and very difficult to control.”
“The statement was neither supported or condoned by me or the School Committee,” Lombardi said.