After a photo of a group of all male, mostly white high school juniors apparently doing the Nazi salute went viral on Monday, police and school officials in Baraboo, Wisconsin, are investigating the incident, and the close-knit community is struggling to understand how and why this happened.
When I opened Twitter Monday morning and saw the photo, I was enraged and discouraged and sad — but I wasn’t surprised. I’m from this place: I graduated from Baraboo High School in 2004, and I was born and raised in Baraboo, a city of about 12,000 people less than an hour’s drive north of Madison. It’s an idyllic setting of tremendous natural beauty, known for its circus history, its proximity to the Waterpark Capital of the World, and its crown jewel, the jaw-dropping Devil’s Lake.
Like many suburban or rural Midwest communities, it is also mostly white and Christian, and has been for generations. In recent years, the community has seen newcomers of other races and religions, who don’t always feel welcomed. According to current and former students of the school whom I spoke with, this latest incident with the photograph is part of a pattern that has gone on far too long.
Peter Gust, the man behind the camera and a parent of a Baraboo High School student, told the local news outlet Madison365 that he was trying to capture the boys “waving goodbye to their parents,” and that the photo has been taken out of context.
“There was nothing that diminished the quality of anyone’s life,” Gust said. “There was nothing that diminished anyone’s stature in society, there was nothing that was intended to point a finger at anyone in their class who may have some kind of difference. There was none of that.”
Whatever Mr. Gust’s intentions for the group shot, however, at least some of the boys knew exactly what they were doing. Before being deleted, the photo was shared from a “parody” account, @GoBaraboo, where it was captioned “we even got the Black kid to throw it up.”
In the photo, a majority of the young men are shown clearly lifting one arm and laughing. One young man in the front is seen making the “okay” sign, which has also been used to signify “white power” by white nationalists and the racist alt-right. In the upper right corner, one student later identified as Jordan Blue appears visibly uncomfortable.
“I felt upset, unsafe, disappointed, and scared. I felt unsafe because I go to school with them,” Blue told Madison365. “I don’t believe in what they represented and the symbol they shared...they knew it was wrong, but they still did it.” Reportedly, the salute took Blue by surprise after he had already gotten into the group shot.
Kionna Garvin, who graduated from Baraboo High in 2018, said she was unsurprised by the photo. She explained in an interview with Refinery29 that she was sometimes harassed by other students for wearing Black Lives Matter shirts. “They would either just start going on a rant saying all lives matter, completely ignoring the fact that many Black people get murdered for their skin color, or they would call my shirt stupid and say I just want to cause problems and that I wanted attention,” Garvin said.
A 1993 BHS graduate, who asked that her name be withheld because the community is small, recalled: “The n-word was thrown out quite a bit when I was there and I was called an n-word lover because I had the audacity to say hi back to one of the Black students on my first day there.” A BHS student from my era of the early 2000s, who is Asian, recalled having “ching chong chong” written in their yearbook and being referred to as “the chink” by multiple students, “under the guise of ‘this is a joke,’” she said.
What this amounts to is that the boys of the Class of 2019 are no pioneers — in Baraboo or elsewhere. The truth is that Baraboo is not the only community in America where racism is brushed off as a joke, and where marginalized people are at best ignored, and at worst subject to ridicule, harassment, and attacks. In fact, in 2017 alone, the FBI reported a 17% increase in hate crimes.
Baraboo is full of many good and well-intentioned people. My classmates and I all recall kind teachers who stood up for kids being bullied and who did not tolerate harassment of any kind. At the same time, we also remember world history classes where non-European civilizations and countries were barely discussed; social studies classes that glossed over LGBT, feminist, and labor movements; and English classes focused predominantly on the works of long-dead white men. Most public schools across the country, in small towns and in big cities, are like this — for which I mostly believe state and federal departments of education, not individual teachers or even administrators, are responsible. Change in education comes slowly, but it is long past time for those at the top to recognize the vital importance of teaching inclusive, comprehensive history and culture.
The Baraboo school district has promised a full investigation and to even work with authorities to pursue legal action, if necessary. “The photo of students posted to #BarabooProud is not reflective of the educational values and beliefs of the School District of Baraboo,” Lori Mueller, Baraboo Superintendent wrote on Twitter. “The District will pursue any and all available and appropriate actions, including legal, to address.”
So where does the community go from here? “The school needs to be more strict and not tolerate any bullying whatsoever,” Garvin said. "They need to teach everyone more history so they can realize how hurtful their jokes are.”
Victoria Solomon, a 2004 BHS grad who identifies as biracial and is the daughter of an immigrant, offered this: “I don’t think expelling the kids will solve anything. They need to understand why this was not okay, and as a community we need to walk with them towards celebrating different cultures, being more inclusive, and fighting discrimination.” To that end, the Auschwitz Memorial addressed the school via Twitter, offering educational resources to improve students’ understanding of the Holocaust.
Another fellow early-aughts grad, a genderqueer person who says they did not have the language to zero in on their identity in high school, also hopes that the prom boys will be given a chance for restorative justice, an alternative to strictly punitive measures, where persons who were harmed meet with the people who perpetrated that harm in a safe place to discuss accountability and building a stronger community.
“We’ll do it together,” the early-aughts grad said, “or we’ll be seeing this again sometime very soon.”