It’s official: the Baraboo High School students who were photographed doing the Nazi salute will not be punished, per the district Superintendent.
According to a letter obtained by Baraboo News Republic, District Administrator Lori Mueller wrote,
“Because of students’ First Amendment rights, the district is not in a position to punish the students for their actions.”
The news has inspired outrage across Twitter, myself included, and rightfully so. Many have called BS on the school’s decision — referencing the Baraboo High School Student Guidelines, which clearly state that a gesture can be considered a form of harassment and is thus punishable.
But the truth is — as painful as it is for me to write this — these young white supremacists do, in fact, have First Amendment rights.
According to the ACLU,
“Outside of school, you enjoy essentially the same rights to protest and speak out as anyone else. This means you’re likely to be most protected if you organize, protest, and advocate for your views off campus and outside of school hours.”
Although the students took the picture pre-prom, a school event, it was not actually taken at the school’s event or on school property. This makes it difficult for the school to pursue any type of action against the students.
But the truth is, we have a much bigger problem than whether or not a group of students gets punished. And anyone on Twitter or elsewhere who focuses their anger on that one aspect of the situation is clearly not seeing the bigger picture.
It was only a few years ago that Americans, at least on the surface, could agree that Nazis were not to be tolerated. It wasn’t even a topic of discussion. And then came Trump.
Ever since 2016, we’ve allowed Nazis and other white supremacists to feel empowered to come out of their hiding places. And we can’t even come together as a country to condemn them. Instead, we’ve sent Nazis and their friends mixed messages.
We have our President claiming there are “fine people on both sides” — including the white supremacists, we have the media tiptoeing around the term “Nazi”, and we have schools who are afraid to pass true judgment.
We all know what happened after the massive white supremacy rally in Charlottesville, which led to the death of a young activist. Trump told reporters,
“You had some very bad people in that group, but you also had people that were very fine people, on both sides.”
And then there are the numerous media outlets that are so afraid of appearing to be partisan — because apparently, white supremacy is now a partisan issue — that they won’t just admit that yes, they are Nazis.
When the New York Times reported on the Baraboo photo, they described the boys as doing “a gesture that looks identical to a Nazi salute.”
Yeah, it looks identical to the Nazi salute because it is the Nazi salute. And yet they won’t say so definitively.
And then we have the Baraboo schools district, who has sent mixed messages to the community. In an original letter announcing the investigation, they condemned the salute and added that they were “extremely troubled by the image.”
However, in a later letter absolving the boys’ of punishment, they wrote “we cannot know the intentions in the hearts of those who were involved.”
Oh, really? You can’t know their “intentions”? The Nazi salute has one message and one message only: hate and violence. To claim otherwise would either by a lie or extreme naivety.
But perhaps the most troubling thing of all, at least for myself, is that anyone is surprised that this is happening. Unfortunately, anti-Semitism in America is not something that Trump invented. He’s merely encouraged it.
We like to pretend that pre-Trump, we never had these problems. But the truth is that they were purely hidden, waiting to rear its ugly head.
You might not have noticed it, depending on where you live. But I noticed it.
I went to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor before Trump was elected and I can assure you that anti-Semitism was alive and well (despite the extremely large Jewish student population and the thriving Hillel). Whether it was subtle remarks that were made to me on a consistent basis or a jarring message like a large swastika painted in a prominent place on campus, it was always clear to me that I should keep my Jewish status under-wraps, if possible. I don’t think that every other Jewish student felt this way. But UofM is a large campus and, depending on where you stood, the anti-Semitism was blatantly obvious.
I say this not for pity but to make a point — anti-Semitism has never died in this country and if you thought it had, your eyes have been closed.
One of the students in the photo, junior Jason Ramos, told Baraboo News Republic,
“We were standing there taking pictures, everything was normal, and then it just happened so fast. One hand shot up and then everyone else went with, so it was kind of like ‘monkey see, monkey do.'”
And it’s things like these that led to the Holocaust — people going along with things without thinking what it truly meant, anti-Semitism becoming normalized, and Nazis feeling empowered to be loud and proud.
Regardless of your shock and awe, this is the situation we’re in. And it’s only going to get worse.
Lena Finkel is the Editor and Founder of Femestella. Prior to starting Femestella, she worked at People, InStyle, and Tiger Beat. Her favorite Housewife is Bethenny Frankel and when she’s not watching RHONY, you can probably find her obsessing over her tuxedo cat Tom or hoarding drugstore lipsticks.