Wisconsin school district declines to punish high school students for Nazi-salute prom photo

In November 2018, a Twitter post with a photo showing a group of high school boys in Baraboo, located about 40 miles north of Madison, the capital of Wisconsin, giving an apparent Nazi salute, went viral and sparked an outcry online. The Baraboo School District investigated the photo but ultimately opted not to punish the students, citing First Amendment protections.

Further Details

In November 2018, a photo went viral showing a group of more than 50 young men giving what appeared to be a Nazi salute while they smiled and laughed. The photographer, a parent of one of the students pictured, took the photo shortly before the Baraboo High School prom in May 2018.

The photo did not gain attention online until an account called @GoBaraboo tweeted it out on Nov. 11, writing: “We even got the black kid to throw it up #BarabooProud.” The Baraboo police could not readily identify the user behind the account, according to Wisconsin Public Radio.

After news of the tweet spread, the photographer wrote an apology online before removing the photo from his website, where it had been posted since May. But he also claimed the image captured the boys waving goodbye to their parents, according to the Associated Press. Yet, as Wisconsin Public Radio reports, there appears to be no consensus as to the motive behind the gesture. A student present when the picture was taken said the photographer had asked the students to “give some type of ‘Yeah!’ symbol” but didn’t believe they were asked to do the Nazi-like salute specifically.

The mother of a Baraboo High School student not pictured in the photo said that “some of the kids were like ‘No, you don’t understand, that’s not what it was.’ If you go to football games on Friday nights, you’ll see all the parents, all the adults, all the cheerleaders doing the Blue-Gold, they put their hands like that. Other kids were like ‘Yeah, it was kind of confusing.’”

Jordan Blue, a student in the photo who did not make the gesture, said he felt “scared” and “uncomfortable” when the photographer told the boys to raise their arms.

“My peers should not have raised it in this specific way that was the offensive way and hurtful way,” Blue said to CNN. “It was a scary moment and it was very shocking and upsetting.”

On the same day the photograph was tweeted out, the Baraboo School District announced it would look into the incident. “The school district is investigating this situation and is working with parents, staff and local authorities,” wrote Superintendent Lori Mueller in a message to parents, according to The Washington Post. “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.” On Twitter, Mueller wrote that “the photo of students posted to #BarabooProud is not reflective of the educational values and beliefs of the School District of Baraboo.”


School district decides not to punish teens for apparent Nazi salute

Following the investigation, Mueller announced Nov. 26 that the school district would not be punishing the students, who are now in their senior year, according to NBC News. The students’ First Amendment rights were cited as the main reason.

“As previously stated, we cannot know the intentions in the hearts of those who were involved,” Mueller wrote in a letter to students and parents, according to the Baraboo News Republic. “Moreover, because of students’ First Amendment rights, the district is not in a position to punish the students for their actions.”

Though it declined to punish the students, the school district said it would take several educational steps to enhance empathy in schools, including sending students to visit the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center, according to the Associated Press.

Critics online argued that the school district’s decision revealed a hypocrisy around Free Speech in high schools, pointing out that student athletes who sought to kneel during games to protest racial injustice faced greater backlash from public schools than students believed to have participated in a Nazi salute. In September 2017, a Louisiana high school principal threatened to punish any athlete who did not stand for the national anthem.

By Dec. 3, more than 39,000 people had signed a petition calling for the school district to suspend the students for their apparent Nazi salute.

Concentration camp memorial condemns students’ actions on Twitter

On Nov. 12, the Auschwitz Memorial, a museum in Poland documenting the Auschwitz concentration camp used by the Nazis during the Holocaust, where more than a million died, condemned the photo on Twitter, writing, “It is so hard to find words. … This is why every single day we work hard to educate. We need to explain what is the danger of hateful ideology rising.”

Peaceful demonstration in response to photo

Wisconsin Public Radio reports thaton Nov. 12, about 70 people gathered outside a Baraboo courthouse to denounce the original photo by taking their own, providing a counter-narrative to the negative attention the community had received since the incident became public.