Try 3 months for $3

After a series of listening and talking sessions, the Baraboo community has scheduled its first events in response to a viral photo of boys giving a Nazi salute before the high school’s junior prom last spring, including an all-day high school peace assembly.

On Monday, Dec. 17, Arno Michaelis, a former white supremacist, and Pardeep Singh Kaleka, whose father was one of six Sikh worshipers gunned down in their Oak Creek temple by a white supremacist in 2012, will talk about racism, homophobia, religious intolerance, the Holocaust and a host of other issues. The event, the first of the Baraboo Acts series, starts at 7:30 p.m. at the Al. Ringling Theatre in downtown Baraboo.

Organizers also plan to unveil a community action plan at the event, which will include short- and long-range plans on topics like equity, inclusivity, safety, deeper learning and restorative justice.

The following day, on Dec. 18, the high school is holding a full day of peace assemblies in collaboration with Masood Akhtar, founder of the anti-hate group We Are Many — United Against Hate. Michaelis and Kaleka will also be at the high school event.

The announcement of the events last week came with an announcement from the school district that it plans a series of measures to deal with the photo of some 60 students, many with arms raised in what appears to be a Sieg Heil salute. The photo garnered international attention and set off a community crisis as city and school officials and residents grappled with how to deal with the fallout.

The district, citing free-speech concerns, decided against disciplining the students.

“Overall I think they’re moving in the right direction,” said Jeff Spitzer-Resnick, a Madison civil rights attorney who presides over the Shaarei Shamayim (Gates of Heaven) synagogue in Madison, which includes a Baraboo family with kids in the high school.

In a statement, the Baraboo School District last week announced a number of initiatives, including annual high school strips to the Holocaust Museum and Education Center in Skokie, Illinois.

Other measures include:

  • Continuing mental health support for students and staff traumatized by the global media attention.
  • Inviting speaker on the Holocaust annually to the middle school as part of the curriculum.
  • Posting Holocaust and World War II resources on the district’s website.
  • Reviewing the district’s social media practices.
  • Stepping up instruction on social justice issues.
  • A districtwide equity audit and action plan performed by a consultant.

The district has also included information on its website updating efforts and including information about events. 

After the photo was posted online last month, Spitzer-Resnick wrote a column and also sent a letter to district officials with suggestions on how to move forward.

“They took most of the suggestions I made in my original piece, which is good,” he said.

But Spitzer-Resnick took issue with some of the measures.

First, he said, the statement from the district doesn’t address white nationalism by name.

“I think it’s fine to focus on the Holocaust as part of this, but I see the absence of education on white nationalism, which I think is a bigger and more current issue,” he said. “And it’s something I’ve been encouraging them to look at.”

As Madison as it gets: Get Cap Times' highlights sent daily to your inbox

He also said there’s nothing in the list of action items that addressed staff training to ensure a consistent message.

“Middle school students had two different teachers who gave very different responses to the picture, one of whom blew it off and one of whom took it very seriously,” he said. “Whenever any district engages in any type of education, certainly this type where there’s going to be a sea change in a lot of the things they’re doing, how do they ensure that staff is on board in as relatively uniform way as possible?”

He also said the district should address critical thinking skills to help students make better choices when situations arise.

“I’ve always been of the belief that those boys didn’t know what they were doing when they made that Nazi salute,” he said. “Or if they did, they were going along for the ride as opposed to initiating it.”

Finally, he said, while one measure provides support for those traumatized by the global media, it doesn’t specifically voice support for the groups who may have been traumatized by the photo.

“There doesn’t seem to be the same kind of support being provided for students who may be traumatized by being in a minority group that feels like it was harmed by that picture,” Spitzer-Resnick said.

He said Jews and other minorities, as well as the LGBTQ community, have been targeted by white nationalist and neo-Nazi groups.

“Jews were their primary target but not their only target,” he said.

Share your opinion on this topic by sending a letter to the editor to tctvoice@madison.com. Include your full name, hometown and phone number. Your name and town will be published. The phone number is for verification purposes only. Please keep your letter to 250 words or less.

Steven Elbow joined The Capital Times in 1999 and has covered law enforcement in addition to city, county and state government. He has also worked for the Portage Daily Register and has written for the Isthmus weekly newspaper in Madison.