Eric Cohen

Massachusetts Mandates Genocide Education in Public Schools


WATERTOWN — On December 2, Massachusetts finally joined the ranks of states mandating genocide education, including the Armenian case, in public schools. The Massachusetts legislation follows that of 20 other states, including four in New England.  This lag might be surprising because Massachusetts has a large and active Armenian population, and had adopted a law recommending, but not mandating, guidelines for teaching genocide and human rights over twenty years ago, in 1998.

In the period between 1985 and 1994, five states, New York, New Jersey, California, Illinois and Florida, legally mandated genocide education.  A hiatus of some 20 years followed before efforts to pass such laws sprung up again in 2014. Massachusetts meanwhile faced efforts by Turkish organizations and their supporters to dilute the portion of the state curriculum that recommended teaching the Armenian Genocide. Initially, these organizations managed to introduce materials in the curriculum that claimed the Armenian case did not qualify as genocide. Cosponsor of the original bill State Senator Steven Tolman managed to have these items removed.

Then, in 2005 lawyer Harvey Silverglate filed a suit against the Massachusetts Department of Education on behalf of the Assembly of Turkish American Associations and several public school teachers, students and parents, claiming that what happened was censorship. A federal court dismissed the case in 2009 but the plaintiffs took it to a higher court. The US Court of Appeals for the First Circuit dismissed their appeal in August 2010. The plaintiffs then attempted to apply to the US Supreme Court, but the latter declined to hear the case in January 2011, thus putting an end to the legal efforts to debase the curriculum.

An attempt to pass a mandated curriculum in Massachusetts began around 12 years ago. Eric Cohen, chair of the Massachusetts Coalition to Save Darfur, has been involved from the beginning with the various bills introduced for this purpose. He said wryly, “It did take a long time. Somewhere along the way, I was informed by experienced Massachusetts legislators that it is not unusual for such things to take ten years. That didn’t really make me feel better though.”

In nearly all of the legislative committee hearings and lobbying that took place over the past dozen years, there was a significant Armenian component. The Armenian National Committee (ANC) of America and the Armenian Assembly of America (AAA) actively supported it and sent representatives to testify. Primarily, Dikran Kaligian of the ANC and Herman Purutyan of the AAA respectively represented these two organizations.

The first bill was actually the brainchild of a high school student on the South Shore of Boston. Cohen said that naively, not having any experience in legislation, he thought it would make more progress. Nevertheless, he said, “I would like to think that it got a little stronger and gained a little more support every legislative session.”

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The Final Stretch

Over the years, a number of variants of the bill failed to get turned into law, or even to make it out of committee for a full vote. Cohen was more hopeful for the legislative session prior to the current one. A large and diverse number of some 25 groups for the first time came together as a coalition. In 2019, he said, “we had more support than we ever had before, which I attribute to both JCRC [Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Boston] and ADL [Anti-Defamation League New England Regional Office] deciding to throw their weight behind the bill. And it still didn’t really get anywhere.” The bill made it out of committee for the first time in the 2020 legislative session. However, Cohen said, “It was stripped of any of its power and changed to be encouragement rather than a requirement, whereas what we wanted was a mandate. The towns with motivated students and households didn’t need help. The ones that needed help in the form of a mandate were the towns that didn’t require such a curriculum, which was most, and the towns that didn’t offer anything at all, which was all the rest.”

In 2021, Cohen said, he and his organization worked with a core group of the two aforementioned Armenian organizations, the Ukrainians and the Cambodians. The annual Boston Walk Against Genocide, which first began in 2014, had helped bring these groups closer in contact. Together they decided that this year, in addition to making the usual presentations at committee hearings, recalled Cohen, “We wouldn’t rely on other people to lobby for us. We would do the lobbying ourselves and hope that this would work.” He explained that it was not just that it had been such a long effort, stating: “It was exhausting too. I was not sure that I was going to do this again after this attempt. We were going to throw everything we could at it.”

All the involved people contacted their legislators individually, Purutyan said. Some legislators needed basic education on the issue and there was a group against mandating anything in Massachusetts, so Purutyan said this group needed extra lobbying and educating. Kaligian also noted that resistance from local school committees to mandates had always been an issue. Cohen said he wrote every member of the Massachusetts House and Senate. The group also followed up as a coalition with key legislative members.

Working as a group was very productive, Cohen said, explaining: “As with so many central movements and all of my work for Sudan and Darfur, the same thing happened with the work for the genocide education bill. A few of us would get together and all of a sudden we were a lot smarter than we were individually, and a lot more creative. The crew of us was meeting every week, and every week some new miracle of a brainstorm would happen to give us ideas about how to have more impact and influence.”

One problem that the group had to overcome, he said, was that many sympathetic legislators by this point had become convinced that the best they could do legislatively was to encourage changes in genocide education , not effect a mandate. That resistance to mandate forced the group to attempt to foster higher expectations among legislators and to convince them that 2021 would be different than the past.

Cohen noted several factors which served to motivate legislators. There was a recent spate of anti-Semitic hate crimes and hate speech that were very much in the news, such as that of the Duxbury High School football team. A recent nationwide survey of Holocaust education showed that the millennials were fairly ignorant of basic facts, and Massachusetts was no better than anywhere else, while Holocaust survivors, who could provide firsthand and often gripping testimony, were dwindling in number.

In October 2019, for the first time, the Anti-Defamation League was able to get both the Massachusetts Association of School Committees (MASC) and the Massachusetts Association of School Superintendents to go on record with letters to the Joint Committee on Education saying that they were in support of the mandated genocide education bill.  These letters of support applied to this year’s bill as well. The MASC letter pointed out that “we generally warn the legislature about mandates,” yet agreed that in this case, a mandate was both “good public policy and socially relevant at this time,” while it “leaves abundant discretion to schools and teachers.” Both letters, Kaligian commented, were very useful   to show legislators that schools were behind the law and not concerned about creating extra work for educators.

Finally, Cohen remarked that there was even a sense of potential embarrassment and local New England rivalry because all except one other remaining New England state had already passed mandate laws, with Rhode Island doing so in 2016, Connecticut in 2018, New Hampshire in 2020 and Maine in the summer of 2021.

There was no partisan element in the support for the mandate, Cohen related, though the most important supporters were Democrats simply because they were the ones running the Massachusetts legislature. After Duxbury, both the Senate President Karen Spilka and House Speaker Ronald Mariano spoke out powerfully on the need for genocide education, which were good signs, he said.

Purutyan said that this year, there were initially two versions of the bill, with the Senate version containing strong mandate language and the House version being more of a strong recommendation. In Massachusetts, all things connected to education are first heard by the Joint Committee on Education. This committee includes both House and Senate members, and has two chairpersons, one from each body. Cohen explained that any bill on genocide education, or any education-related topic, must be reported out of that committee favorably, or it will be really hard for anything to happen afterwards. The genocide education bill was reported out favorably but was completely changed, with the strong mandate provisions removed.

It could have then gone through both chambers separately, which could have created two competing versions, but instead it reported out only to the Senate, to its Ways and Means Committee, where the mandate was restored. Then it was passed by the Senate and sent to the House Ways and Means Committee. The latter improved it further, adding a funding mechanism for a trust fund for genocide education, and passing it out favorably. The House voted nearly unanimously for it, and then it went back to the Senate to reconcile the slightly different wording with a few improvements, as identical versions must be approved by both bodies to become a law. The Senate then approved it unanimously.

Cohen praised in particular the role played by Senate Ways and Means Committee Chair Michael Rodrigues (D-Westport) in reinserting the mandate language and pushing the bill through the Senate, exclaiming, “Kudos to Senator Rodrigues. He deserves special mention and acclaim. He is not only the good friend of genocide education but he was wonderfully positioned and really exerted himself to make it happen. Without such leaders, it just wasn’t going to happen.” Purutyan and Kaligian also praised Rodrigues.

Kaligian and Purutyan noted that State Rep. David Muradian was very helpful on the Republican side, as was Middlesex County Sheriff Peter Koutoujian with the Democrats, as a former House member. Like Cohen, Kaligian spoke appreciatively of the Senate president and House speaker, without whose support the bill could not have been passed.

Turkish Opposition

Two years ago, in the public hearing for the bill at the Joint Education Committee, some five or six Turkish people came to testify. According to Kaligian, it takes a lot of endurance because there are some 40 different bills being testified on during the session and you might have to wait three or four hours for your turn to come. At that time, the Turkish people primarily argued that the bill was fine, but that the Armenians and Pontian Greeks should be taken out of the list of accepted genocides. There were no Armenian survivors left to testify, though a few Holocaust survivors were able to participate. On the Armenian Genocide, speakers included representatives of Armenian organizations, scholar Taner Akçam of Clark University, Koutoujian, Rep. Muradian, a social studies coordinator for the Watertown public schools, as well as some students who had studied genocide at Bristol Community College.

This year, the hearing took place for the first time via Zoom, due to the coronavirus pandemic. Cohen said that he would not have been surprised to see someone from the Turkish embassy come and say we have to be careful about genocide education because there never was an Armenian Genocide. However, this time there were actually some 40 people who signed up.

“It is astounding that they came out in such high numbers,” Cohen said. “There were more Turkish Americans speaking at the hearing than there ever were before, and than there were of any other group making a point. Because it was Zoom this made it easier for them to get so many speakers, but it was a coordinated campaign to make this happen.” All of them made the same points, which led Cohen to surmise that they were, he said, “reading from a script provided by the Turkish government.”

The argumentation had been discredited in the past. The Turkish advocates stated that there was no Armenian Genocide and that this issue should be left to the scholars, but the scholars already have given their verdict, so, Cohen said, they could not be cited. They used to say the American government does not recognize the Armenian Genocide, but Congress and the president now have spoken up on this and US policy is now clear. They called for the courts to decide, but that is not the forum for this issue. They said they didn’t want their children in Massachusetts school to be subject to information on the Armenian Genocide, but, Cohen noted, Germans in America with school children could say the same thing about the Holocaust, or Northern Sudanese who might not want their children to learn about the Darfur Genocide, or some Rwandans, and on and on. Cohen concluded, “These are all examples of ignorance, and if we allow that ignorance to persist, then shame on us…These Turkish Americans need education. They were highlighting for me how important it is.”

Kaligian concurred that since the old arguments could no longer be used, the Turkish government was pushing a new tactic, claiming that Turkish Americans are being discriminated against and bullied on this issue. Purutyan agreed with his colleagues that the Turkish opposition to the bill made no difference in the outcome, and that there did not seem to be any groups lobbying against the bill in general.

Kaligian and Purutyan were the only two Armenian speakers at the Zoom hearing.

The New Mandate

The new law, “An Act Concerning Genocide Education,” requires that every Massachusetts school district provides instruction on the history of genocide in accordance with the history and social science curriculum framework to middle and high school students. Furthermore, it may partner with community-based organizations such as municipal human rights commissions in this work. It does not specify at which grades this instruction will be provided, but leaves this to the determination of the local school district.

The same law created a Genocide Education Trust Fund which will promote teaching of human rights issues in middle and high schools, with particular attention to genocide. The fund in addition to donations or state appropriations, will receive revenues from fines imposed for hate crimes or civil rights violations.

Cohen stated that now the social studies curriculum will have to be updated to comply with the new law. The curriculum framework already covers what is genocide and what is not, and the accompanying circumstances, but the history of genocide will also have to be taught. Specific genocides are not mandated to be taught, but several examples will have to be covered. Individual school districts may choose to do it in different ways, he said.

In general, there is no standard approach even among the states that have mandated genocide education. Some only require Holocaust education, but most have adopted a broader type of genocide education. Some specify covering multiple genocides. Some have required it only in high school, while others also include the middle school years. Some states have required the creation of a commission to propose how it should be taught, whereas others leave it to the school curriculum people.

What Next?

Kaligian said that though the bill does not mention specific genocides such as the Armenian one, the latter is already covered in the existing curriculum framework because of the work done in the 1990s. He said, “We are ahead of the game here.” If specific genocides such as the Armenian one were listed in the bill, it would have caused difficulties in which ones to adopt, as you cannot just have the Holocaust and the Armenian Genocide. Kaligian said at a few points in prior efforts, there were attempts to specify but in the end it was clear that this was not possible.

Instead, different local communities will choose to focus on cases connected with their own populations. For example, Kaligian said that the large Cambodian population in Lowell will probably lead to teaching the Cambodian Genocide there, along with one or two other cases.

While it is good to allow the towns this flexibility, Kaligian said, “It puts the onus on us [the Armenians of Massachusetts] to actually go to these towns and say we want you to include the Armenian Genocide. That is the next step.” Any Armenian with children in local schools can now point to the law requiring the teaching of genocide and ask that the Armenian Genocide specifically be covered. Fortunately, he added, there are Armenians all over the state, so it is possible to go school department by school department. While there may again be Turkish opposition, he said that the Turks do not have a commensurate ability.

Kaligian said that the broader lesson of the struggle to pass the genocide bill from an Armenian perspective is to understand “the magnification of your power when you can find allies outside of your community to push for the same thing. It is hard to make coalitions. You don’t always get 100 percent of what you want, but when you do build coalitions you often can succeed politically.”

Purutyan declared that the effort was truly a collaboration. He exclaimed: “It is good that finally our children in Massachusetts will be able to learn all about genocide, not just one part, and hopefully such things will not be repeated.” For Armenians in particular, he said that the message that the bill sends is, “This isn’t just about history. If you look at what is happening in Armenia today, and especially right after the war [with Azerbaijan], it is part of current events.” For any students coming out of school, if they are going to be prepared to deal with current events in the world, they need to know this information, he concluded.

Cohen pointed out that now that Massachusetts has joined the list of states that require education, “We now get to do the work to see it happen, and we hope it gets better every year as it goes on.” He stressed how important this bill is, echoing Purutyan, and stated: “Genocide is not merely a historical problem. It is real and present. That is why I always argue that it is necessary and urgent to teach about them collectively, to learn lessons from the previous genocides, because it is still with us. … Many of the conflicts in the world today are not only haunted by earlier genocides but are still animated by the hate that fueled those genocides.”

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