The prom photo showing virtually all the Baraboo High School male class of 2019 giving a Nazi salute went viral yesterday. It quickly traveled from social media to local news, national news, and even international news. There are certainly things to investigate, including:
◆ why it took six months for this photo to become public; and
◆ why a Baraboo parent would suggest that these boys throw up a Nazi salute and later make himself ridiculous by stating that he only asked them to wave to their parents.
Perhaps most important, though, is for the school district to find out why so many of its students do not have the critical thinking skills to refuse to obey a parent who asked them to throw up a Nazi salute, something so vile that it is outlawed in Germany and 10 other European nations. Of course, a close look at the photo, and a public statement by one of your brave students, Jordan Blue, shows that not all the students engaged in this vile show of anti-semitism and white nationalism.
I have a very unique perspective to address this issue. I am the president of my synagogue, Congregation Shaarei Shamayim (Gates of Heaven), and I am a civil rights attorney who specializes in education law and school discipline matters. As president of my synagogue, I have already reached out to offer support to the Huffaker family, who are members of our congregation, and have three children who attend Baraboo schools. They are one of very few Jewish families in your district and while they appreciate the support of many local residents who have offered it, they still await an appropriate response from the school district that addresses clear systemic issues of anti-semitism, white nationalism, implicit bias and failure to engage in critical thinking. It is very clear that this is not an isolated incident.
While the Baraboo School District certainly did not wish this viral problem on itself, in one sense it has a unique opportunity to address this problem in a healthy manner. Along with the Huffaker family, I urge the Baraboo School District to address this hateful incident through a restorative justice lens. The Huffakers informed me that the school district showed the movie Paper Tiger, a documentary about how a school district transformed how it dealt with adverse childhood experiences by moving away from punitive discipline approach.
While this incident calls for education, one showing of a good documentary is simply not enough. There are not many years left while Holocaust survivors who remember living through the horrors they survived can speak to your students, but though elderly, they are still available and willing to come to your school district to impress upon your children the horrors of the Holocaust and what the Nazi salute means to them. I would be glad to help if you need this assistance. The U.S. Holocaust Museum has published Guidelines for Teaching About the Holocaust and the Illinois Holocaust Museum is worth an annual field trip for all of your middle and high school students. It also has a speakers bureau you can contact to bring speakers to your school district.
Restorative justice repairs the harm caused by crime. Regardless of whether the police and prosecutors determine a crime was committed in this instance, this process can still apply when hate is broadcast so clearly. When victims, offenders and community members meet to decide how to do that, the results can be transformational. It emphasizes accountability, making amends, and uses facilitated meetings between victims, offenders, and other affected people to address the incident to help the parties move forward in a healthy manner. The Madison YWCA has a restorative justice program that works on school-to-prison pipeline issues that may be well suited to addressing this incident. Once again, if you need help setting up a restorative justice program to address this incident in your district, please contact me.
Your students also need to learn critical thinking skills so that when a hateful suggestion to raise their hands up in a Nazi salute is given to them, more of them are able to join the Jordan Blues of your school district and refuse to do so. Just imagine if most of the students who threw up the Nazi salute had refused to do so. Your school district would not be the spotlight of local, national, and international attention for this shameful act and your Jewish students and students of color would not have to look at their classmates and wonder how deeply ingrained Nazi ideology is in their minds.
In sum, in support of your Jewish students, the Huffakers, and others, as well as your other marginalized students who know that Nazism espoused both anti-semitism and white nationalism in their most deadly forms, I urge the Baraboo School District to seize this unwanted opportunity to do the right thing and transform its district from one that is now the subject of worldwide vilification, to a model of healing and support. Unfortunately, too many of our political leaders are giving safe space to vile forms of hatred like Nazi salutes, so your task is to teach your students how to stand up to such hate and to support marginalized members of your community instead.
This column was first published on Spitzer-Resnick’s blog.