Baraboo officials concerned about student safety after viral tweet of students’ apparent Nazi salute

Officials with the Baraboo School District said they’re worried about student safety due to national media attention around a controversial photo of some students taken before junior prom last spring.

The photo was included in a tweet – which has since been deleted – posted at about 9 p.m. Sunday. It showed a large group of young men on the steps of the Sauk County Courthouse dressed up and making what appears to be a Nazi salute.

The tweet read, “We even got the black kid to throw it up #barabooproud.” That hashtag has been promoted on the district’s web page .

The account that posted it, called Welcome to Baraboo, is an anonymous student-run account created in 2013 that is passed down to a senior in each graduating class.

“It was supposed to be just to like spread humor and definitely not hate. Most of it was just satirical stuff about Baraboo,” said Sean McCutchin, who graduated from Baraboo High School and ran the twitter account in 2015.

He said he was disappointed by the tweet and embarrassed that it was coming from his hometown.

“I think they knew it was offensive but just didn’t realize how much it would actually hurt people,” said McCutchin.

“I was surprised because at that setting there’s parents everywhere,” said Alisyn Amant, a 2018 graduate of Baraboo High School. “I wasn’t surprised at the behavior itself, but I was just surprised that it was so widely accepted in the moment and there was no punishment.”

The Baraboo School District sent the following letter to parents this afternoon in response to a photo circulating on social media. pic.twitter.com/0IXNUdLeRD

— Baraboo Schools (@barabooSD) November 12, 2018

A letter sent to parents Monday afternoon by Superintendent Lori Mueller says that the district has been working with the police department on a “modified administrative hold” of the high school as a result of attention the district has been getting. The hold, Mueller said, “means business as usual with keeping detailed notes of who is permitted in and who is permitted out of school.”

Mueller said the district was also “concerned about student safety due to this media attention” and is offering mental health support for bullying and harassment.

The district sent a letter to parents earlier Monday reminding parents and students that their school is a “hate-free environment,” calling the gestures “extremely inappropriate,” and saying that the district is investigating the situation and is working with local authorities.

“If the gesture is what it appears to be, the district will pursue any and all available and appropriate actions, including legal, to address the issue,” the letter said.

Mueller said the district has confirmed that the photo was not taken on school property or at a school-sponsored event.

The photo has drawn local, national and international attention.

The Auschwitz Museum tweeted about the photo multiple times, once quoting a survivor, saying, “We must make it clear that hate is never right and love is never wrong!”

It is so hard to find words…

This is why every single day we work hard to educate. We need to explain what is the danger of hateful ideology rising. Auschwitz with its gas chambers was at the very end of the long process of normalizing and accommodating hatred. https://t.co/13AzZaMGJR

— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) November 12, 2018

The photo of students posted to #BarabooProud is not reflective of the educational values and beliefs of the School District of Baraboo. The District will pursue any and all available and appropriate actions, including legal, to address.

— Lori M. Mueller (@LoriMMueller) November 12, 2018

Mueller said earlier Monday morning that the photo is “completely unacceptable.” She said the district is “very concerned” about the image, adding the gesture is certainly not endorsed by the district.

Until Monday morning, the pictures were still available on the WheelMemories photography website. They have since been deleted and replaced with a message from the company.

It said, it part, “Due (to) malevolent behavior on the part of some in society; this page has been modified. It is too bad that there are those in society who can and do take the time to be jerks; knowingly and willingly to be jerks!”

Until this morning the picture of BHS students doing the Nazi salute was still available on the photographer’s website. It has been deleted and replaced with this message. It’s unclear who is being referred to as “jerks”… #news3 pic.twitter.com/DPP2tSj2wK

— Amanda Quintana (@AmandaQTV) November 12, 2018

The posted message also included an apology: “To anyone that was hurt I sincerely apologize.”

Photographer Pete Gust didn’t reply to News 3’s request for comment, but told Madison 365 the photo was “innocent” and that he told the students to wave at their parents. Gust said he also demonstrated the hand motion he wanted them to make.

One of the only students in the photo who is seen not saluting shared his story on twitter, saying the photographer told them to make that sign.

He wrote, “I knew what my morals were and it was not to salute something I firmly didn’t believe in.”

The Baraboo Police Department said officers are looking into the incident, but wouldn’t comment on what the criminal charges could be.

Former Baraboo High School students Amant and McCutchin agree the boys need to be held accountable.

“It’s kind of a culture thing, like these boys have that privilege and they feel like they can use it for this reason and have no consequences,” said Amant.

McCutchin said the area’s lack of diversity plays a role in this. He wants to see the school create a cultural sensitivity training for all grades.

“It’s easier to get away with insensitive comments when no one is going to call you out,” said McCutchin.

In a statement Monday afternoon, state Sen. Jon Erpenbach condemned the photo.

pic.twitter.com/zK3cxEVTSd

— Jon Erpenbach (@JonErpenbach) November 12, 2018

“There is no place for hatred, intolerance and racism in our society,” Erpenbach said. “Unfortunately, based on what these students see coming from the White House, some of them may believe what they have done is acceptable. It is absolutely not. Leaders, from the President on down, need to condemn racism in all its forms and work toward a world where we learn from the mistakes of history.”

Rep. Dave Considine, D-Baraboo, also released a statement saying he was “extremely disappointed” in the photo and said it was a “slap in the face to all of our efforts to eliminate hatred, racism and bigotry from our community.”

“However, I also believe the actions of these students are informed by the attitudes they see every day in the adults around them – from their fellow citizens all the way up to their President and other leaders,” Considine said in the statement. “I hope we use this incident as an opportunity to take a serious, critical look at the differences between our stated values and the behaviors we see in our community.”

Stay with News 3 for the latest on this story and the response from the district, students and parents.

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