A Wisconsin school district said students who made a Nazi salute in a prom photo –the majority of whom were white — will not face any kind of punishment for their actions.
The Baraboo School District recently finished part of its investigation into the prom photo and came to the conclusion that it could not take action on the grounds of free speech.
“Moreover, because of students’ First Amendment rights, the district is not in a position to punish the students for their actions,” Baraboo School District Administrator Lori Mueller wrote in a letter.
Despite the fact that many students chose to participate in the salute, Mueller wrote, “As previously stated, we cannot know the intentions in the hearts of those who were involved.”
A parent, Pete Gust, instructed the students to raise their arms, students said to the media. Gust claims he was telling students to wave goodbye to their parents. One of the students present, Jordan Blue, said he refused to participate in the salute. He kept his hands at his sides and said he did not have time to leave because the picture was taken so quickly.
Blue said to journalist Jules Suzdaltsev, “I knew what my morals were and it was not to salute something I didn’t firmly believe in.”
The lack of consequences for the students who participated is jarring when you consider the disproportionate discipline students of color experience in school. Black students were 1.9 times more likely than white students to be expelled from school without educational services, according to a 2016 Education Department data. Black students were 2.3 times more likely to be disciplined through involvement of officers.
Black girls make up 8 percent of enrolled students in the U.S. and represent 14 percent of students receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions. Often, girls of color who have had traumatic childhood experiences are particularly vulnerable to being pushed through the school-to-prison pipeline. Infractions that are more subjective in nature, such as punishing a student for “willful defiance” can enable this racial bias.
There are countless examples of students of color defying authority without bringing any harm or threat of harm to their fellow students, and receiving severe penalties as a result. One of the clearest examples of this is dress code enforcement. Earlier this year, a Black student was pulled out of his classroom in Fresno, California because his haircut violated the dress code. This dress code forbid any hairstyles that “draw undue attention” including “Mohawks, tails, unusual razor cuts or unnatural/unusual colors.” The student’s parent arranged for a haircut but couldn’t get an immediate appointment. When he showed up to school the next day with his against-code haircut, he was given in-school suspension.
In May of last year, a Connecticut high school in a mostly Black and Latinx school district gave out 150 suspensions in one day to enforce the school dress code. In one particularly severe 2014 incident at Duncanville High School in Texas, where 93 percent of students are Black and Latinx, more than 160 students were suspended for dress code violations, which included piercings, large belt buckles, and untucked shirts.
Black girls bear the brunt of much of this dress-code discipline. Researchers at the National Women’s Law Center released a report this year that examined uneven enforcement of codes of conduct, including dress codes, due to race-based and sex-based stereotypes about Black girls.
Researchers have found that high school students who are suspended are at a higher risk of dropping out of school.
Students at this Wisconsin high school will benefit from a practice few students of color get to experience. The school district will use restorative practices, which aim to repair relationships and a build a healthier school climate as opposed to strictly punitive approaches that reduce students’ time in the classroom. The school also said it has a plan to “address issues of hate and racism with students” according to Madison.com.
Auschwitz Memorial tweeted in response to the incident, “Let’s only hope that the protection of freedom of speech will not become a too easy excuse for parents, teachers, community and educators to do nothing about this painful public expression of hate speech in the form of the Nazi salute.”