When the photo of Baraboo High School students posing before prom, arms raised in a Nazi salute, hit the Internet, the response was widespread outrage. That outrage was well placed; the image of a large group of boys in central Wisconsin with their arms raised in the gesture of obedience to Adolf Hitler is horrifying.
Plenty of questions still remain about how the moment came to be, how the salute was initiated, and why so many young men joined in. One Baraboo parent recently told me: Why was the internal barrier to doing this horrible thing so low? And questions of accountability: How can the young men in the photo be held accountable for their participation, with the goal not of punishment, but of understanding the impact of their action?
But one thing has become clear: The Baraboo School District is serious about doing their part to make sure this type of incident doesn’t happen again.
After the photo went viral, the Jewish Community Relations Council reached out to the school district with offers to help with short- and longer-term responses. With other Jewish community representatives from the Jewish Federation of Madison, the Wisconsin Jewish Conference and the Anti-Defamation League-Midwest, we sat with district leaders as they reeled and tried to chart a course forward, all the while fielding threatening calls and messages from people in Baraboo and across the country.
One wall of the district conference room was covered with papers and sticky notes, laying out the options: restorative justice, Holocaust education, teacher support, student leadership training, etc. But most striking to me as we sat together and in later phone calls was the palpable sense of pain. As the town’s mayor said in a separate meeting, the photo’s release and aftermath was like a sudden death; the community was in deep grief.
Outrage is easy and can serve an important function as an alarm, ensuring that people take action, but it’s only a starting point. More difficult is taking action, step-by-step and day-by-day, to stand up against hate and to ensure a better, healthier future. The light in this story is that Baraboo is doing that work.
On Dec. 18, Baraboo High School held a “Day of Peace” that included assemblies and breakout sessions on different topics related to the Holocaust, anti-Semitism, hate crimes, diversity and knowing the other. It was a remarkable day. At one point, the principal showed a small group of us a student-created video that was shown throughout the school the previous day, urging the student body to transcend their defensiveness and participate.
The video said: “Many people called to voice their anger at our community. And we felt attacked and our instinct was to be defensive. And then we got a different kind of call. Not an angry call, but a kind call. “How can we help?” they said. We have some knowledge to share and we want to help you, they said.
So we made a day…. To the many who asked to help, we said, ‘yes, please. Come. Share with us. Tell your story. We will listen. Help us learn to see, understand and accept each other.’”
Throughout the day, students approached the speakers, revealing their stories, asking to be heard, asking for more. After an Hours Against Hate session, one girl stayed behind to share her personal story of economic and social struggle. Multiple times throughout the day, I was moved to tears.
I left Baraboo heartened by the district’s courage in embracing their responsibility to create a climate that is safe for and inclusive of all. We will continue to work with the district to help them implement practices and curriculum to ensure inclusion, respect and compassion. Rather than remembering Baraboo as an example of unhooded hatred, perhaps we can look to Baraboo as a model for using hate incidents as opportunities to do good.
Elana Kahn is director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Milwaukee Jewish Federation.