The Baraboo School District administrator Wednesday sent a letter to parents acknowledging the enormity of publicity surrounding a picture of high school students raising their arms in a Nazi salute and promising community action to deal with issues of race and intolerance.
"We are so very sorry that the actions of some of our students so understandably and deeply hurt people around the world," district administrator Lori Mueller wrote. "We have heard from families whose loved ones were lost in death camps, who fought in the war against such evil and who rightly cannot imagine that an image like this exists in our modern day."
She called the image "hateful, frightening and disappointing."
She said the district is working with civic, community and faith leaders to host a "community program."
The coalition has three meetings planned: Baraboo Gathers at 6 p.m. Monday at the high school, Baraboo Talks at 6 p.m. on Nov. 29 at City Hall and Baraboo Acts, which is yet to be scheduled.
"Faith, community, civic and school district leaders have collaboratively planned this program to begin healing within our community," said a message from the school district announcing the meetings.
According to the Baraboo News Republic, Baraboo Mayor Mike Palm announced a community forum on the matter for 6:30 p.m. Thursday (tonight) at the city Civics Center.
Mueller said it was too early to share details of an investigation by the district and local police into the notorious image of more than 60 male Baraboo High School students, most of them with right arms raised and one student in the front flashing an OK sign, which has been associated with the white supremacist movement.
The photo has been seen by many as a blight on the Baraboo community, best known as the home of the Ringling Bros. Circus and Circus World Museum.
The picture, taken at the junior prom last spring, went viral after it was posted on Twitter on Sunday with the hashtag #BarabooProud. The photo came from the website of the Baraboo photographer who took it six months ago. It has garnered widespread condemnation across the U.S. and internationally.
Fallout continued this week.
A petition urging the high school to suspend the students garnered more than 10,300 signatures from across the U.S., Europe, Canada and other locations as of Thursday morning.
The photographer, Peter Gust, is a former private school teacher who also has coached the Baraboo High School football team.
Gust told Madison 365 that he has a son in the class of 2019 and was taking pictures when parents, seeing that he had professional equipment, asked him to shoot photos.
“And the last picture that I shot, I said, ‘All right boys, you’re on the steps. … Give me a high sign, a wave that you’re saying goodbye to your parents,” he said. “And I called it a high five, ‘Give me a high five.’ … And so I stuck my hand up, and I said, ‘This is what I want.’”
Jordan Blue, who stands out in the photo not only for not raising his arm, but for wearing an unmistakably uncomfortable expression, said in various interviews this week that several of the students in the picture were “not sure what was going on.”
“But then there’s some where they had intent,” he told WISN-12 News in Milwaukee.
He said he didn’t think the students in the photo are racist.
He said several parents were at the photo shoot, but only one reacted to the implications of the salute.
“I heard her shouting, ‘Stop, stop, stop,” he said. “She was waving her arms. She knew what was happening. She was making a scene. But nobody else was paying attention to her.”
Another student in the photo weighed in on Wednesday.
In a letter to Madison station WMTV, Baraboo student Brock Turkington said the photographer told the boys to give a “high-sign.”
“No one knew what a ‘high-sign’ was,” he wrote. “I asked another student next me, ‘What are we doing?’ He responded, ‘Stick your arm out.”
He said there was never any mention of Nazis or anti-Semitism.
“Looking at the picture now, I understand why people believe it is related to anti-Semitism,” he wrote. “As an outsider, I would have the same impression. That was never the intent at the time.”
He expressed deep remorse.
“I want to apologize to anyone that this incident has hurt,” he wrote, “individuals that have been victims of racism, anti-semitism, and/or xenophobia. I would also like to apologize to the people of Baraboo, Baraboo High School, and my family. I am deeply sorry.”
Some of those students may be sorry for another reason.
According to a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel story, they may find the incident to be a new obstacle to college admissions.
The school district and Baraboo police are investigating the circumstances surrounding the photo. That investigation could determine whether the students will be subject to discipline.
According to a State of College Admissions report from the National Association for College Admission Counseling from 2009 (the last report that addressed the issue), the second-most common reason for rescinding admissions — behind final grades — was discipline.
“This could very well have an impact on their ability to get into college,” Stefanie Niles, the association’s president and vice president for enrollment and communications at Ohio Wesleyan University, told the Journal Sentinel. “Everything has a reverberating effect. I think a lot of those young men will have a variety of responses from the institutions that were considering them.”
The Journal Sentinel reported that Ellen Weiland, administrative assistant to Baraboo School District administrator Mueller, said she heard that some students in the photo have already had scholarships rescinded, but she was unable to verify that. And she’s received calls from people who said they plan to call their alma maters and urge them not to accept students from Baraboo.
Weiland and Mueller didn’t return messages Wednesday for further comment.
The school has had other bouts with racial controversy.
According to the Baraboo News Republic, in 2012 several students displayed confederate flags on their trucks as a tribute to a friend who died in a car crash. After the wake, other flags began appearing in the school parking lot, prompting school officials to ask the students to remove them.
On the website Refinery29 on Wednesday, former Baraboo High School student Molly Nagappala, from the class of 2004, wrote that she was “not surprised” when she saw the photo.
“Like many suburban or rural Midwest communities, it is also mostly white and Christian, and has been for generations,” she wrote. “In recent years, the community has seen newcomers of other races and religions, who don’t always feel welcomed. According to current and former students of the school whom I spoke with, this latest incident with the photograph is part of a pattern that has gone on far too long.”