Bay Area teacher ousted after students out his antisemitic lessons

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The Hayward Unified School District has cut ties with a teacher whose lessons excused Hitler and spread antisemitic conspiracy theories, more than 10 months after students gathered evidence, then brought forward their disturbing complaints and demanded action.

The district removed Mt. Eden High School English teacher Henry Bens from the classroom in February after an outcry from students and some of his fellow educators. But he has continued to receive his paycheck during his suspension over the last seven months — and on Wednesday, he signed a “separation agreement” that will keep him on the payroll through next January, said district spokesperson Michael Bazeley.

During the 2021-22 academic year, Bens’ salary was $113,815 a year, according to the district. As of early October, Bens’ teaching credential remained valid and is not set to expire until next April.

Late last month, an internal investigation found that Bens had both taught with antisemitic materials and verbally attacked other teachers who had spoken up against him. That investigation, which was obtained by The Bay Area News Group, stated that “Mr. Bens will not be returning to Mt. Eden High School.”

It took another 15 days after those findings were released for the district to finalize Bens’ departure from Hayward Unified.

“This decision should have been made a long time ago,” said Ruchita Verma, a recent Mt. Eden graduate and one of the students who first raised the alarm about Bens halfway through last academic year.

Efforts to reach Bens on Wednesday were unsuccessful, and an email and call to his lawyer Peter Orth were not returned.

Students recorded Bens’ lectures, took photos of their assignments and spoke out at school board meetings, urging the district to step in. Bens taught Elie Weisel’s Holocaust memoir, Night, alongside photocopies of The Hidden Tyranny, an antisemitic text by Holocaust-denier Benjamin Freedman.

“Students were saying, ‘Well you know, the Holocaust wasn’t even real,’” said Verma back in February, referring to a story she’d been told by another classmate. “(They said) ‘What my teacher (Bens) is telling us is what we should all look into.’”

The students polled their classmates about their experiences in Bens’ classroom, gathering evidence to present to the administration in December, January and February of 2023. Responses included students alleging Bens said things like, “Hitler was not a bad person, we only hear one side of the story.”

Bens’ lessons came amid a spike in antisemitism across the country, fueled on social media by celebrities such as Kanye West and NBA star Kyrie Irving. The Hayward teacher showed his support on Instagram for a controversial antisemitic documentary film after Irving had promoted it on social media.

“If I was alive during Hitler’s time, I would have an interview with him,” said Bens in an audio file that was recorded by his students. “I would let him share his views.”

Earlier this year, the Anti-Defamation League found that antisemitic incidents in Northern California rose by 137% from 2021 to 2022, with 327 incidents recorded across the state overall. Those figures made California home to the second-highest number of antisemitic events nationwide, the organization found, including harassment, vandalism and assaults.

After Bens was placed on leave, Verma and a number of other students tried to organize an antisemitism awareness week for Mt. Eden High. But school administrators canceled the plans amid growing friction and later replaced it with workshops and the creation of a “climate team” to improve the fractured environment across the high school.

In a statement released late Wednesday afternoon, the district said it “takes all issues of discrimination, including antisemitism, very seriously. The district appreciates the students and staff who brought the concerns to the district’s attention, and appropriate action has been taken to address the issues related to this case.”

Though the investigation into Bens is now complete, a second investigation into how the district handled complaints about Bens is still underway. A letter from the district, reviewed by the Bay Area News Group, stated that “school closure over the summer break impacted the investigation’s timing and the independent investigator’s ability to gather and review evidence.

Staff members who filed those complaints have been told they will receive the findings in November — 10 months after their concerns were formally raised.

Check back for developments on this breaking story. 

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