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WUWM's Emily Files reports on education in southeastern Wisconsin.

Baraboo Schools Will Bolster Holocaust Education After Nazi Salute Photo Controversy

A group of Baraboo High School students appear to be giving a Nazi salute in a junior prom photo.

The Baraboo School District will bolster education about the Holocaust and examine equity in its schools following the controversy over a photograph of a couple dozen students giving what appears to be a Nazi salute.

The prom photo was taken in May but received international attention after being posted to social media last month.

This week, the Baraboo district announced "educational steps" it plans to take in response to the controversy. The district says high schoolers will now make annual trips to the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, Ill., and Holocaust speakers will be invited to the middle school each year as part of the curriculum.

Elana Kahn is director of the Jewish Community Relations Council at the Milwaukee Jewish Federation. She is working with Baraboo leaders on education plans.  

“They are enthusiastic about using this horrible moment, really, as a teaching moment,” Kahn said. “As a learning moment, as a community-building moment, and as an opportunity to create a different climate in the school.”

"The photo is so ugly. And it was so public," said Elana Kahn.

Kahn’s organization has worked with other Wisconsin school districts in the past after anti-Semitic incidents. She says this situation was different because the incident was more shocking and the attention was so widespread.

“I mean, it was so ugly. The photo is so ugly. And it was so public,” said Kahn. “There was no ability to hide from this. They didn’t have the option to say ‘meh, it was no big deal.’ ”

In addition to enhanced Holocaust education, the Baraboo district plans to hire a consultant to conduct an equity audit. Details are unclear, but other school districts that have undertaken similar efforts looked at racial achievement and discipline gaps.

A statement from the district says it’s also providing mental health support for students and staff ‘experiencing trauma from the global media attention’ Baraboo has received because of the photo.

Baraboo district officials declined an interview for this report.

READ: Milwaukee Students Respond To Baraboo Photo

There are still unanswered questions about what led to the offensive photo. At a community meeting in Baraboo last week, facilitator Gene Dalhoff said students not involved in the infamous picture say they’re waiting for answers.  

“There’s a feeling of … I don’t want to say loss, but there’s a feeling of uncertainty within the student population of what’s going on regarding what happened and with their fellow students,” Dalhoff said. “And that hangs like a dark cloud over them.”

The school district has not announced plans to hold individual students in the photo accountable. The superintendent did say the First Amendment bars the district from disciplining the high schoolers.

Kahn says the district should hold the boys accountable by, for example, encouraging them to apologize.

“I believe that our schools have a responsibility not just to shove information in our kids’ heads,” Kahn said. “But to help them process information, help them learn how to think and to shape them into good human beings.”

Kahn is participating in an all-day peace assembly at Baraboo High School on Dec. 18.

There is also a public event on Dec. 17 called Baraboo Acts. It will feature speakers Pardeep Singh Kaleka and Arno Michaelis, who co-authored the book The Gift of Our Wounds. Kaleka's father was killed by a white supremacist in the Oak Creek Sikh temple shooting. Michaelis is a former white supremacist.

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Emily does education reporting as well as general news editing at WUWM.
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