It's jarring to see. A bunch of white teen-aged boys in tuxedos and suits with big grins on their faces making what looks for all the world as Nazi salutes.
It's unacceptable. Because we liberals have remembered the lessons of the past, those horrified by the uprising of Nazism in this country clamored for some sort of consequence, some way to nip these wannabe Nazi Youth in the bud.
But as it turns out, the Baraboo School District didn't see it that way:
Officials with a Wisconsin school district say free-speech rights would make it difficult to discipline students who appeared in a photograph that showed several high school boys giving what appears to be a Nazi salute.
Baraboo Superintendent Lori Mueller reportedly said in a letter to parents Wednesday that officials cannot know the "intentions in the hearts" of those involved. She also said the district isn't in a position to punish the students because they are protected by the First Amendment.
This, predictably, led to outrage on social media.
But hear me out: the district superintendent isn't wrong. But a few caveats:
1) This didn't happen on school grounds. The photograph-- reportedly taken by a parent--was done on the steps of the county courthouse.
2) This didn't happen at a school-sponsored event. The students were on their way to a prom, but had not yet arrived.
If either 1) or 2) were not true, then there would absolutely be a case for the district disciplining the students and would make the above comparisons to school behavior more applicable. Frankly, many school districts have been struggling with this slippery slope of holding students accountable for things they say off campus (especially on social media). Do we really want them in the business of policing our children if they're not making direct threats against others? What if red state school districts use off campus activities to discriminate against LGBT or Muslim students?
3) This happened last spring and only came to national attention a couple of weeks ago. Do we know that all or most of these students are still students, or have they graduated?
4) We don't know what was in their hearts, as trite as that is to re-state. The man responsible for the photo said that the instruction was simply to wave good bye. I'm not insulting anyone's intelligence by pretending it's not what it looks like. Even the lone boy (up in the right hand corner) who refused to join in the salute acknowledged that he knew what it looked like and didn't want to participate.
But that leads me to where I think the Baraboo School District really missed a critical and necessary educational opportunity: those students should learn the history and the ugliness behind that casually thrown salute. Superintendent Mueller says that the district is in the planning stages to host a community program with civic, community and faith leaders. That's all fine and good, but it's not nearly enough.
There are still survivors of the Holocaust alive today, though their numbers are dwindling. It's time for ALL the students of Baraboo County to hear what it was like to be on the opposite end of the Nazi SS soldier's gun.
They should study the Milgram Experiment to see how easily people can be coerced to hate irrationally.
Or Jane Elliott's Blue Eyes experiment on how it feels to be the one being discriminated against.
And moreover, they need to understand that though the First Amendment does protect their right to do a Nazi salute, it does NOT protect them from the very valid criticism for choosing to do so. They, the photographer, and the school district should apologize to the community at large for not understanding the repercussions of such a thoughtless gesture so that they make more mindful choices in the future.