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'We Want To Bring You Up With Us': Milwaukee Students Respond To Baraboo Photo

Emily Files
Kenadee Henderson, Estella Ramirez and Hannah Olenchek are juniors at Rufus King High School in Milwaukee. They were part of a photo organized in response to the viral picture of Baraboo high schoolers making an apparent Nazi salute.

You’ve probably seen the now-infamous photo of dozens of Baraboo high school boys making what appears to be a Nazi salute. The photo drew international condemnation earlier this month, including from the Auschwitz Memorial Museum. As the story garnered attention around the world, a teacher at a Milwaukee high school felt compelled to respond. 

Kelly O’Keefe-Boettcher teaches English at Rufus King High School, a magnet school on Milwaukee's north side. Her students call her ‘Ms. OKB.’ 

“I thought, ‘we have to respond to this,’ ” O’Keefe-Boettcher says. “We cannot let this go without a response. So, then I started thinking a picture for a picture.”

O’Keefe-Boettcher sent a message to the school community to gather for their own picture. More than 50 students and teachers showed up.

“I said, ‘I don’t want this to be an anti-Baraboo thing. I don’t want this to be, oh they’re so terrible, let’s turn them into the big baddies,’ ” O’Keefe-Boettcher says. “I didn’t want that, that wasn’t going to be the spirit of it. It’s not like any of us are in a position to judge anybody else. But we knew that our students, our Jewish students, our Muslim students, our students of color — that was landing for them. And I wanted to give them an opportunity to respond to it.”

Rufus King has a significant deaf and hard of hearing population. So, for the photo, they decided to hold up their hands in the ASL sign for ‘love.’

The photo was posted on Twitter with the hashtag #WIUnitedInLove. It has about 2,000 "likes" and has been shared more than 500 times.

Juniors Hannah Olenchek, Estella Ramirez and Kenadee Henderson are three of the students in the photo.

In a conversation about what this experience has brought up for them, they brought up their school’s diversity. Olenchek pointed out that most of the boys in the Baraboo photo are white.

Lake Effect's Emily Files talks with Rufus King teacher Kelly O’Keefe-Boettcher and students Hannah Olenchek, Estella Ramirez and Kenadee Henderson about their response to the Baraboo photo.

“Coming from a school like King, where we’re so diverse, Ms. OKB said this one time, we’re at an advantage,” said Olenchek. “And sometimes with that advantage, we forget there are parts in this country who’ve never seen what we come to school to look at.”

Rufus King is 57 percent black, 18 percent white and 12 percent Latino. Baraboo High School’s student body is 86 percent white.

Olenchek, who is white, says she open-enrolled at Rufus King because she was seeking a more diverse experience after attending Wauwatosa schools.

Ramirez has grown up in Milwaukee Public Schools. She agrees that Rufus King’s multiculturalism is an asset.

“I’m definitely so grateful to be surrounded by so many types of people that I don’t necessarily relate to, but I can have knowledge about and learn about and learn from,” Ramirez said.

The teens have this message for the Baraboo high schoolers: own up to your mistake and learn from it.

“I would simply say, be aware,” said Henderson. “Because whether or not their intention was to generalize hate, it affected a lot of people, [including] outside of the Jewish community. Simply be aware of what you do and how you do it.”

O’Keefe-Boettcher says she was disappointed to hear the Baraboo School District would not discipline the students making the salute in the picture. The district administrator said it’s impossible to know what students’ intentions were, and their actions are protected by the First Amendment.

“Your free speech, if it’s rooted in hate, is at the expense of someone else’s freedom,” O’Keefe-Boettcher said. "And there's a consequence for that."

She says she might organize another Rufus King response, depending on what happens in Baraboo.

The Baraboo School District says it will develop a community action plan to address issues like equity and inclusivity. And Ramirez says they’ll be paying attention.

“As long as people are going to be doing things like this, oppressing other people, Rufus King is gonna have something to say about it,” said Ramirez. “It’s not like we’re trying to do this to put Baraboo in their place or put these high school kids in our place. We want to bring you up with us. We want to lift you up.”

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Emily is WUWM's education reporter and a news editor.