By Allison Economou
Newport Beach school officials announced on March 3 that they were investigating images posted the previous day on social media, which showed high schoolers saluting a swastika made from red solo cups. In a letter written to parents, Junipero Serra High School said that the student they were able to identify as one of their own is “now a former student.” Some of the students in the images are believed to be students or recent graduates of Newport Harbor High School. On March 4, students, school officials and local leaders from Newport Beach and Costa Mesa stated they condemned the images but also urged the community to learn from the incident.
“Our Junipero Serra community has always included students and families of the Jewish faith,” school officials said in a letter sent out on March 5. “They must be particularly hurt by the photographs and the knowledge that a Junipero Serra student was involved, and we profusely apologize on behalf of the school.”
The letter, signed by Junipero Serra’s President Rich Meyer, Principal Eric Stroupe and Vice President Patrick Reidy, also stated that the school teaches its students about the Holocaust in their World History course curriculum and is planning an upcoming seminar called “Identity Formation” that will focus on the “scourge of racist attitudes and behaviors.”
“While we believe our program of studies adequately addresses the horrors of Nazism and the Holocaust,” the letter said, “more can be done to educate our students about racism in general and anti-Semitism, specifically.”
“We need to seriously address why teens in our community might think these types of hurtful symbols are acceptable or funny and worthy of selfies,” Costa Mesa Mayor Katrina Foley stated.
Martha Fluor, Vice President of the Newport Mesa school board, said Superintendent Fred Navarro first alerted district officials about the incident the morning of March 3. She said many on the school board received concerned emails and messages from parents and community members. Fluor assured concerned individuals that the school and district officials are working together to decide what kind of appropriate disciplinary action should be taken.
“White people stay together, Mexicans stay together. We naturally just do it because we know that’s the way it is,” said Jocelyn Navarro, a junior at Newport Harbor about her school after seeing the images that surfaced on Snapchat and Twitter. She said the images were less intentional than unconscious.
Bianca Lutz, a 16-year-old Newport Harbor student, said she was “extremely disturbed by the ignorance of those at the party,” and that her Jewish friends felt threatened by the incident.
According to a report from ABC 7, students from Newport Harbor asked their friends to wear blue on March 4 to make a stand against hate.
In mid-January, Minnetonka High School outside of Minneapolis made national news after a photo surfaced showing two students performing Nazi salutes over a Hitler-themed invitation to a school dance. Only two months prior, a prom photo with a group of Wisconsin students giving a Nazi salute went viral.
“The images shouldn’t be taken lightly and all students involved should be suspended,” said Rabbi Abraham Cooper, the associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles.
“This is an insult to the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust,” Cooper said. “It’s also an insult to the many thousands of families in Southern California whose loved ones… died to defeat the Nazis and defeat the swastika.”
Rabbi Peter Levi, the regional director of Orange County’s Anti-Defamation League, said the league runs several educational programs but does not yet have one at Newport Harbor High School. He also added that Nazi salutes are never a joke and treating them as such normalizes bigotry and helps lay the foundation for bigger problems such as violence against Jewish people.
On March 7, Anne Frank’s step-sister and Holocaust survivor met with students pictured in the viral images to talk about their anti-Semitic behavior. Schloss, 89, was hopeful that despite their actions the students would become “advocates of tolerance and understanding,” according to a statement from the Chabad Center for Jewish Life. Born in Austria, Schloss spent two years hiding in the Netherlands before being captured by the Nazis when she was 15. She spoke openly about the horrors she and other teens endured at the hands of the Nazis, and talked about the gassing of the Jewish people and the targeting of the disabled and their children. After the event, many of the students wrote open apology letters to the Jewish community, the city and the school district.
“We can’t erase what we did, but we can try to make it better and show you we are not the people we seemed to be during a few minutes of stupidity,” one student wrote.
“Our hope is that meeting someone who witnessed firsthand the atrocities committed under that same swastika and salute will help guide these students toward a life of tolerance and acceptance, spreading a message of inclusion and love, rather than one of hatred,” center director Rabbi Reuven Mintz said in a public statement.
In Orange County, there are over three hundred Holocaust survivors. In a video featured by NowThisPolitics, Jewish members of the Shir Ha-Ma’alot temple showed the numbers that were imprinted on their arms during the Holocaust. Annual meetings are held by the Jewish community for Holocaust survivors to meet other survivors and to share their stories with the younger generation.
“At some point there will be no more first-hand accounts of what took place during the Holocaust,” said the featured Rabi. “This makes it all the more important for young people to understand the atrocities of the past, retell those atrocities, and ensure that those atrocities are never allowed to be repeated again.”
Despite this, flyers with Nazi swastikas were posted at Newport Harbor High School on March 10, days after Schloss’s visit. While the police were called and the flyers were immediately removed, Mintz believed the posters were put up by an outside group and not by students. Seventy four years after the Holocaust, fighting anti-Semitism remains an ongoing struggle.