Holocaust role-playing misses mark
Inside the First Amendment

By Charles C. Haynes
First Amendment Center senior scholar
03.23.97

"As part of a unit on the Holocaust, a tenth-grade teacher in our community assigned a role-playing activity that has created controversy. Students who volunteer to participate wear the Star of David (yellow, pink, white, etc.) for about a week. Their teachers and classmates in other classes are told to treat them badly in order to give them a better understanding of how those persecuted by the Nazis might have felt. Teachers, for example, might ignore students who are wearing the stars. A number of parents and community people have objected to this activity, saying that it is offensive. Is this role-play an appropriate way to teach about the Holocaust?"
Susan Mogull, Sacramento, Calif.

While this assignment may not be unconstitutional, it is highly inappropriate for at least three reasons.

First, the yellow Star of David should not be used in a role-playing activity. This symbol has deep significance for the Jewish people and is a reminder to all humanity of the unspeakable atrocities of the Nazi regime. Students should learn about this symbol and others as they study the evil of the Holocaust, but care must be taken not to trivialize the symbol through reenactment.

An alternative might be for the teacher to use another more generic symbol in a role-play that gives students some experience of how it feels to be singled out and treated differently because of the symbol they wear.

Second, parents should be informed when students are involved in exercises that involve their feelings. If teachers assign such activities, even on a voluntary basis, then parents should be asked for permission.

School officials should always remember that parents have the right to primary responsibility for their children's upbringing, including education. True, parents delegate some of this responsibility to teachers when they send their children to public schools. But teachers and administrators need to make sure that parents are fully informed about what goes on at school, particularly when a policy or practice may be controversial.

Third, involving teachers and students who are not part of the class is a bad idea. Students who do not understand the context of the exercise may trivialize the activity, learning little more than how to tease or harass their fellow students for being different. Role-playing that involves lessons about discrimination should be confined to the class where historical material is carefully taught and discussed, so that students are able to understand the seriousness of these lessons.

We should applaud the motives of the teacher who assigned this role-play activity. Helping students comprehend the prejudice and hatred that fueled the Holocaust is a worthy objective. Nevertheless, the role-play as currently designed risks violating parental rights and undermining the very lessons it is attempting to teach. Teachers need to take great care in teaching about the sensitive and emotionally charged subject of the Holocaust.