Eva Huffaker was shocked and horrified.
Before she started classes on a day in November, the Baraboo School District freshman learned about a photo of her peers. The image, which dates back to prom in the spring, appears to show boys in the then-junior class posing in the position of a sieg heil – the Nazi victory salute.
It began making rounds on the Internet just weeks after Robert Bowers allegedly killed 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh.
“I just thought, ‘Wow. This is terrible. How could this happen in my town, with people I know?’” she said.
Huffaker said none of her teachers talked about the photo that day, but all of her classmates discussed it. She and her brother are a couple of the only Jewish students at the school, she said.
The day was scary, because many declined to take the photo seriously, dismissing it as a joke.
“It is serious,” she said. “It’s not something you can just joke about.”
The image surfaced on Twitter in a now-deleted post that read, “We even got the black kid to throw it up #barabooproud.” Since then, the image spread on social media and drew national attention to the Sauk County city of about 12,000 residents.
The Baraboo School District has stated that it launched an investigation into the image and that there is no room for hate in the community.
“Regardless of the details of the photo or the intentions in the hearts of those involved, the truth is this is an image that has rightly been described as hateful, frightening and disappointing,” the statement says.
The Baraboo Police Department has also said that it is assisting the school district in its investigation.
As those responses take place, Huffaker’s mom, Marcy Huffaker, is calling for healing and learning. In a guest column published by the Baraboo News Republic, she and her husband Buddy asked the school district to consider restorative justice responses instead of punitive. She also asked for the community to acknowledge the seriousness of the incident.
“There have been some folks who have been saying it’s not a big deal – these kids were just being stupid, and let’s just ignore it and move on,” she said. “Those kinds of discussions have been scary to me.”
Marcy Huffaker helped organize a series of community meetings at the local school district to help people move forward.
“There are lots of great people here, and so we wanted to do some things to help educate and possibly make some changes to make this a better place to live,” she said.
When the image began to circulate, Marcy Huffaker said she initially was relieved not to know anyone in the photo. But Baraboo is a small community, and upon closer examination, she realized she knew several of the participants.
Since then, she said two of the students visited their home to apologize. The experience was awkward and uncomfortable, she said, but she thinks it was a step in the right direction.
Her daughter said she is waiting for the rest of the boys in the image to take responsibility for their actions.
“Some of them have realized and taken accountability, which has been very comforting, that they realized that they did something wrong,” she said. “There are still a ton of people in the picture who haven’t taken accountability and are just passing it off as nothing, which is very scary.”
That’s a step Baraboo resident Mara Seals said she is still waiting on. A veterinarian and member of Baraboo’s Jewish community, Seals said she has been disheartened by dismissive attitudes, and by people saying the image doesn’t show what people think.
After the photo was disseminated, some said the boys were waving to the camera, not posing in the Nazi salute. But Seals said one of the students came to her to apologize for his actions and told her that was not the case.
She said the boy told her that the photographer instructed the students to wave, and one of the participants instead encouraged his classmates to perform the sieg heil.
“If the discussion was, ‘this happened, and we’re really sorry,’ that would be a lot easier of an argument for me to take than the one that I’m seeing a lot now, which is either this isn’t what it is, or maybe it is what it is but these boys aren’t bad boys so we should just move on,” she said.
Seals said she suspects many of the boys succumbed to peer pressure.
She said the incident has helped her empathize more with other minority populations who more regularly face discrimination. Instead of being angry, she said, she is trying to demonstrate compassion.
In that vein, Seals said, she supports the Huffakers’ call for restorative justice, noting how removed younger and younger generations are growing from the Holocaust.
“We repeat history if we forget history,” she said. “My generation didn’t experience it, and the generations after me didn’t experience it. The farther out we get from those things happening, the less we remember its importance.”