In the Wisconsin town of Baraboo, high school students in their final year before graduation take formal pictures on the steps of the town’s courthouse. Census figures say that the town of 12,000 in the country’s heartland is 94% white.
Among the pictures available for purchase on the website of a local photographer was one with only the boys and in which many – most, it appears – were performing a Nazi salute. (The photo disappeared from the site on Monday but is widely available online.) One of the students near the front did not make the Nazi salute – instead he made a hand signal made popular by far-right white supremacists. He’s the real rebel, we suppose.
Actions like these can often be sparked by the dumb idea of one or two kids, with others following along. It would be distressing and disgusting at the best of times but, now, when there is a clear, genuine resurgence of white supremacy, antisemitism, xenophobia and other forms of intolerance in the United States and worldwide, this takes on a deeper resonance. Is this an example of a bunch of high schoolers thinking (perversely) that this would be funny or kooky or somehow amusing? Or is there, among the crowd, a few or a lot who know what the salute really means, identify with the ideology behind it and, because of the mainstreaming of “alt-right” ideas in the country, felt emboldened to make this statement?
Certainly, there are worse hate crimes and other catastrophes in the United States – including racially motivated and gun violence – that deserve attention. Yet, this incident sticks out for a number of reasons.
The picture is jarring. Kids – young adults almost – well-dressed in their graduation suits, nearing a turning point in their lives, standing in front of the embodiment of justice and rule of law in their society, raising their arms aloft en masse in a motion determined to provoke.
But this is not the most alarming thing about the photo and how it came to be. Deep into the New York Times story about the incident, a recent alumna of the high school said she was disappointed but not shocked, knowing that a group of boys in the school were noted for bullying and offensive remarks. “I’m not surprised by them doing this,” she said.
Then she added: “But I’m surprised that there’s so many of them doing this. Photographers were there; the parents were there; community members were there.”
There’s more to the story. The photo was apparently taken months ago and it took this long for anyone to raise alarms.
Still more: a young man in the back of the photo whose arms remain by his side said, on Facebook, that the salute was the idea of the photographer. Should this make us feel better? If true, the photographer should suffer professional and social consequences. But were there parents and other community members who witnessed this live and stood by silently?
In a world not lacking in tragedies or social ills, this is not the worst of the week’s news. Yet it resonates because these young people are part of the next generation we are depending on to fix society’s ills and improve the world. Have their parents, grandparents and educators done their jobs in preparing them for the world and their responsibilities in it?
In a letter to parents, the superintendent of the school district said her team was “extremely troubled” by the image.
“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,” she wrote. “If the gesture is what it appears to be, the district will pursue any and all available and appropriate actions, including legal, to address the issue.”
Fair enough. But, first and foremost, perhaps they should look at their curriculum and also consider what messages are being sent consciously or unconsciously by teachers, administrators and other role models before they initiate legal or any other actions against the students.
While school administrators and teachers have much on their plates – shrinking budgets and broadening demands, as well as trying to prevent their charges from being murdered in yet another gun rampage – this should be a warning for educators everywhere to remember that success is not only measured in grades and that a proper education includes more than academics.