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A bill heading to Governor Charlie Baker’s desk would require Mass. school districts to teach about genocides

‘It doesn’t take a Hitler to cause genocide,’ said Dikran Kaligian, of the Armenian National Committee of Eastern Massachusetts

Massachusetts does not currently require schools to teach students about the Holocaust or other genocides.Craig F. Walker/Globe Staff/The Boston Globe

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A bill that could be just days from becoming law in Massachusetts would require school districts to teach middle and high school students about the history of genocide and human rights issues and set up a Genocide Education Trust Fund to help build the new curricula.

The bill was passed by the state Legislature on Wednesday and sent to Governor Charlie Baker for his signature.

Massachusetts does not currently require schools to teach students about the Holocaust or other genocides, but the state Department of Elementary and Secondary Education offers optional curriculum frameworks. Districts get to choose which materials and teaching approaches to use.

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“It’s quite obvious that killing millions of people is wrong, but if that’s so clear-cut, why do people continue to do it? If it’s self-evident, why do so many people continue to commit genocides?” said state Representative Jeff Roy, lead sponsor of the House bill. “At a bottom line, we have to give and arm our students with the knowledge that they need to recognize the warning signs and feel empowered to prevent genocides in the future.”

Though the legislation is far from new — Roy filed it for the first time in 2013 — the bill’s passage would come on the heels of a year that saw a rise in hate and antisemitism, state leaders say. This summer, a rabbi was stabbed outside a Jewish school in Brighton, and across the state, school leaders have dealt with incidents of antisemitism.

In Duxbury, an independent investigator discovered the high school’s football team has been using antisemitic terms on the field as far back as 2010. And in Danvers, racist, homophobic, and antisemitic graffiti was found in a bathroom earlier this month, just a day after school leaders came under fire for their handling of alleged violent racist and homophobic misconduct involving the 2019-20 boys’ varsity high school hockey team.

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A 2020 survey commissioned by the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany found 63 percent of respondents did not know that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust. The survey results, Roy said, were “alarming.”

“As a former teacher, I recognize and value the importance of teaching about acts of genocide in an effort to stem bigotry and intolerance. This Genocide Education bill puts Massachusetts on a path to do exactly that,” House Speaker Ronald J. Mariano wrote in a statement. “By requiring that all middle and high schools teach about the history of genocide, and how hatred and prejudice can lead to violence, we’re taking a necessary step in the pursuit of increased education about the atrocities of the past, and how to avoid them in the future.”

If signed by Baker, the legislation would set up a Genocide Education Trust Fund to help districts develop genocide education curricula and train educators to incorporate the new lessons into their classrooms.

The fund would include appropriations revenue; gifts, grants, and donations from public or private sources; and revenue from fines imposed for a hate crime or civil rights violation.

In addition to teaching students about past genocides, the new law also would require schools to “promote the teaching of human rights issues ... with particular attention to the study of the inhumanity of genocide,” demonstrate how “national, ethnic, racial or religious hatred impacts nations and societies,” and “reject the targeting of a specific population and other forms of prejudice that can lead to violence and genocide,” according to the language of the bill.

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“It may not stop every future incident, but I think there’s a collective responsibility in teaching students about what leads to genocide, what’s the impact on communities, on victims, and ensuring that they have the knowledge to stand up to all forms of hate whether it’s on the genocide level or on the ground,” said Robert Trestan, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League of New England.

He continued: “I hope that they [students] have a lifelong awareness of the dangers of hatred when taken to the extreme.”

Once the bill becomes law, the next step is to ensure districts are teaching a wide variety of genocides, helping students understand that violence can happen anywhere, said Dikran Kaligian, a member of the Armenian National Committee of Eastern Massachusetts. Kaligian helps train educators on teaching about genocide through the Genocide Education Project.

“It doesn’t take a Hitler to cause genocide. There are many other circumstances,” he said. “As soon as somebody starts getting other-ized, is treated as different … that’s when you are creating the conditions to allow massive discrimination which may accelerate into massacre and genocide.”

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