HAVERHILL — The principal of Haverhill High School said a history assignment in which students were asked to debate whether characteristics of fascism are exhibited by President Donald Trump was more political that it should have been.
The assignment, given by veteran history teacher Shaun Ashworth, triggered controversy on social media after a posting on Jan. 5 on the Facebook page, “Haverhill Public Schools Parent Group,” a closed group, in which a parent asked if anyone else’s child at Haverhill High had received the “Why Donald Trump is or is not a fascist” assignment.
The parent who posted the comment asked why the assignment referenced Trump in particular and said that the assignment appeared to be biased and “one sided.”
More than 40 responses to his post ensued, with the topic spilling over onto the Haverhill 411 Facebook page,
School Committee member Maura Ryan-Ciardiello, who oversees the Facebook school parent group, said she doesn’t think that a teacher should be giving students an opinion that could sway them and that she has other concerns about the assignment as well.
“If you’re discussing the president, especially when you’re teaching, you should refer to him as President Trump and not Mr. Trump, as was noted in the assignment,” she said. “I find that to be disrespectful, and that goes for all presidents.”
Ryan-Ciardiello said the parent who posted his message on Facebook had reached out to her this past weekend and that she suggested he bring his concerns to the principal and the superintendent.
High School Principal Glenn Burns said that in response to the controversy, he met with history teachers and department heads at the beginning of the week, then notified parents by email that any concerns for political bias were being taken seriously.
In the letter, Burns said the assignment may have “missed the mark” or “skewed” the debate over Trump, or that it may have “provided the perception that we were looking for scholars (students) to prove Donald Trump was a fascist.”
“This was not the intention of the assignment and we apologize to those that felt that was the experience we were trying to create,” Burns said in his letter. “Our team discussed at length how to provide a more balanced prompt that could enrich this topic and discussion.”
The assignment included a list of 14 characteristics of fascism as defined in an article published in Free Inquiry magazine in 2003. Free Inquiry magazine is published quarterly by the Council for Secular Humanism.
In his letter to parents, Burns refers to the author of the 2003 article as “Dr. Britt.” The author is Laurence W. Britt, who, according to the internet fact-checking site snopes.com, does not hold such a degree but rather describes himself as an “amateur historian.” The list was cited shortly after it was published as evidence the administration of President George W. Bush exhibited fascist tendencies. It has now resurfaced during the Trump administration.
In the assignment, Haverhill High students were asked to demonstrate “Evidence that Mr. Trump talks/behaves like a Fascist” and “Evidence Mr. Trump does not behave like a Fascist.”
The principal’s letter said that in the future, teachers and school officials will not avoid assignments involving controversial issues.
“We will continue to provide our scholars opportunities to debate and engage in controversial topics,’’ the letter said, “because this is at the heart of how positive change and innovation happens.”
Burns told The Eagle-Tribune that the assignment handed out at the end of last week in a World History II class was not intended to serve as a teacher’s statement or the history department’s statement, but to have students think about the stated topic.
“As a learning institution, we want to keep a neutral ground and a safe space for debate,” he said. “I think the way it was worded had the potential to skew our kids’ thinking as to what the teacher wanted to see, but that wasn’t the intention of the assignment.
“We wanted the assignment to hit a particular objective that is in the (state curriculum) frameworks, but the wording could have provided kids with a perspective that it was more of a political assignment that content in the frameworks that we needed to address.
“What we talked about in the meeting were there are ways to adjust the assignment and everyone was in agreement,” Burns said. “They (teachers) will address fascism again next year, but will be using a different assignment.”
He said the high school will continue to make sure it is putting out high quality assignments that ensure student grapple with complex text and ideas, in a neutral and safe space.
“Our goal is to build the thinkers and problem solvers of tomorrow and we need to provide them with the opportunities to debate and tackle the issues of today so they can move forward,” Burns said. “The assignment is over, it was reflected upon, and it was changed for next year.
“We will be more mindful of how we word our prompts in the future and create space space for debates that are neutral and unbiased,” he said.
Ninth-grader Patrick Spencer Zbitnoff, a student in Haverhill High School’s Classical Academy, told The Eagle-Tribune on Thursday that he was prepared to address the School Committee when it met that night to speak up in defense of his history teacher.
He said he’d heard his principal was going to do the same.
“I feel that this assignment was made to be as unbiased as possible and to engage students about the topic of fascism,” Spencer Zbitnoff said.
Spencer Zbitnoff said the assignment asked students to conduct their own research and that the links included in the assignment were simply “starting points” for conducting research.
“The assignment was built to teach you what the signs of fascism are, and what signs Trump might show, but based on my research, I found the president not to be a fascist,” he said.
Spencer Zbitnoff said that most if not all of the students in his class indicated Trump did not exhibit fascist behaviors.
“Even some of my more liberal friends did not find him to be a fascist, which surprised me,” Spencer Zbitnoff said, although they did say Trump exhibits one or two signs of fascism. If there was anyone who did consider him a fascist, they didn’t speak up.
Zbitnoff was true to his word and addressed the School Committee Thursday evening, speaking “in defense of my history teacher.” The assignment, he said, was not meant to produce a bias against the president.
Those who criticized Ashworth on social media “don’t know the whole picture,” he said.
His mother, Helen Kempers Zbitnoff, posted the actual assignment on Facebook so that parents could see for themselves what was being asked of students.
She told The Eagle-Tribune that she is 100 percent in support of her son’s history teacher.
“My son is thriving in his class, which is his favorite class,” she said.
“I would defend this teacher to the end of the earth,” she told the School Committee Thursday evening.
Another Haverhill High student, Angelina Parolisi, a junior, told the committee that Ashworth did not intend to persuade students to be for or against Trump. He encourages students to “think for themselves,” she said.
“I have learned more from Mr. Ashworth than any other teacher,” she said.
Her father, Anthony Parolisi, who teaches eighth-grade civics at the Consentino Middle School, gave an impassioned defense of his colleague.
“It concerns me,” he said of the criticism expressed on social media. Such a climate, he warned, threatens to “frighten teachers.” He said he is about to present a lesson to his students about John Adams and the Alien and Sedition Acts, which were seen as an attack on freedom of the press.
“Do I have to worry that I, too, will be dragged through the mud? Should I be worried about imparting a bias?” he asked.
He, Ashworth and other social studies educators have no intention of indoctrinating their students with any ideology, Parolisi said. Rather, they are committed to teaching their students to be “critical thinkers,” he told the School Committee.
Parent Jim DiBurro said healthy debate is good, as it helps everyone see alternative perspectives, but that “teachers need to remain balanced and neutral.”
“It’s something that hasn’t been the case for as long as we’ve had children at Haverhill High School, over 13 years,” he said. “Teachers need to show both sides of all issues to avoid overtly influencing highly impressionable students. They need to keep their personal perspectives to themselves and avoid ridiculing students that share opposing views ... they’ll get more than enough of that when they are in college.”
DiBurro added that there are some “fantastic and dedicated teachers at Haverhill High who work really hard to make their students think about history and current issues. Likewise, there are a lot of others that are the exact opposite, and with the teachers’ unions, we can’t do much about them.”