A Wisconsin school district is investigating a photo of a group of several dozen high school boys giving what appears to be a Nazi salute before their junior prom last year.
The Baraboo School District says it only became aware of the photo Monday after it was posted on social media — drawing widespread condemnation.
The district issued a statement, indicating that officials are extremely troubled by the image in which students appear to make “a gesture widely recognized for its association with intolerance, violence and hate.” It also notes that the school district and Baraboo Police Department’s investigation continues. In another statement, the district says it plans to hold a community program.
Democratic state Sen. Jon Erpenbach, whose district includes Baraboo, said that “unfortunately, based on what these students see coming from the White House, some of them may believe what they have done is acceptable. It is absolutely not.”
— carly sidey (@CarlySidey) November 12, 2018
And there’s not much that the school will be able to do legally, according to University of Wisconsin Law School professor Anuj Desai.
“At core, under the First Amendment, people in the United States have a right to express their —even assuming for a moment that they’re sympathetic to the Nazis — they’re allowed to express their views on that, and if they’re making a joke, they’re allowed to do that too,” Desai explains.
He says statutes or ordinances that may criminalize or prohibit that gesture would be unconstitutional. That is unless the actions fall into a special category like being threats or incitement to violence or “fighting words” — statements intended to encourage disorder.
Desai says if the photo happened on school grounds or at a school event, the school district would have a lot more authority. But since the photo was taken off school grounds and assuming the students didn’t skip school to take it, he says the ramifications are going to come from parents and social castigation.
“It’s hard to imagine that a lot of people are not going to think a lot worse of the people in the picture. But at core that would not be legal ramifications, those would be ramifications based on social norms that we find that kind of speech unacceptable,” he says.
WUWM reached out to Baraboo high school, the school district, and the school board, and was directed to the school district’s statement. It indicates that hate has no home in the Baraboo School District and that “clearly, we have a lot of work to do to ensure that our schools remain positive and safe environments for all students, staff and community.”
In response to the photo, Elana Kahn of Milwaukee’s Jewish Community Relations Council agrees with that sentiment.
“We have to do better to counter anti-Semitism, islamophobia, racism, homophobia. We have to educate our children to be leaders in a diverse world. And I think that educational institutions, schools, have a really heavy responsibility, to not only give consequences, but also to really address the values that they are communicating and forming these young people with,” she says.
If @barabooSD wishes to know more about what can be the extreme result of normalization of hatred - and hatred is enrolled in this symbol - please see some online lessons dedicated to the history of Auschwitz: https://t.co/M1VC8b8Jlj
— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) November 12, 2018
Kahn says there are two important ways to educate young people about the dangers of hateful ideology like this. One is to clearly explain what happened in the Holocaust and how Jews and others in Nazi German were dehumanized. Secondly, Kahn says hatred is hatred.
“One of the things that we face in Wisconsin — and we’re not alone in this — is that we have very segregated communities. And it’s certainly true in the middle of the state. And it’s also true in Milwaukee by the way where we have such extreme segregation,” she says. “But we have a responsibility to expose our children to people who are unlike them. Because they step out into the world, and they’re going to meet Jews, African-Americans, Muslims, and immigrants, and so how do they respond to that? How are they good neighbors? How are they good leaders?”
Kahn says it’s important not to dismiss the Baraboo students’ actions as mere ignorance, but also realize that they are young people still being shaped in the world.
“I hope somebody’s taking care of these boys, not just wagging a finger, but pulling them close to the heart and saying ‘I want to tell you why this is hurtful. I want to tell you why this matters,’” she says.
Kahn hopes for a censure of the young people through restorative justice because she feels people learn better that way.
The Jewish Communities in Milwaukee and Madison have reached out to the school districts to provide resources on the Holocaust and on bias in general, says Kahn.
Editor's note: The original Nov. 13 story has been updated to include more information and reporting.