GARDEN GROVE, Calif. - A little more than a month ago, videos surfaced showing high school students here giving the straight-arm Nazi salute while singing a German military song.
District leaders say they have already moved on.
"This is a very isolated incident," said Lan Quoc Nguyen, the school board president in Garden Grove about the off-campus event involving Pacifica High School athletes.
But should they have - and were their actions correct?
As acts of hate become more prevalent across the country, school officials are wrestling with how to respond. Sometimes they sanction participants. Sometimes they don't. If they do discipline the students, rarely is it public. One problem, school officials around the country say, is that many of the incidents showing up on social media took place off-campus.
The Garden Grove Unified School District chose to discipline the students in question, but it also sought to use the incident as a teaching moment for the whole campus. Students launched a "kindness campaign" focusing on mutual respect and compassion. School administrators met with leaders from The Anti-Defamation League, are adopting a "No Place for Hate" program and visited a Holocaust museum, said district spokeswoman Abby Broyles.
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"I think we're learning and healing from it," said Jessica On, a Pacifica senior who is student body president. "It blindsided a lot of us."
Videotaped images of Nazi emulation aren't soon going to vanish, either in this multi-ethnic bedroom community in California's Orange County or other schools around the country. The question is what to do about it.
Taking disciplinary action sends a direct message about whether hate will be tolerated, but at the same time raises questions of freedom of speech.
Another approach is to use such moments as teaching opportunities, a chance to show the pain caused by white nationalists
"Punishment doesn't work," said Maureen Costello, director of the Teaching Tolerance Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Alabama, a civil rights group that tracks hate groups. "They feel they are martyrs to the cause. It will just make them more disaffected."
Michele Gold, board chair of the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, is even more direct: "You teach them. You educate them. Punishment doesn't do anything."
But there's one issue on which all agree: White nationalist incidents must be dealt with directly. As the number of years since the Holocaust has grown, younger people have become less informed about its horrors and the hate-filled beliefs of Nazis, polls show - and can be more easily seduced by denial rhetoric online.
"Expressions of antisemitism and racism have a chilling and intimidating effect on a school environment even more than a workplace environment," said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino. Ignoring such acts "would have the effect of limiting school participation where (students of color or Jewish students) are perceived not only as not wanted, but also at risk."
Free speech or hate speech?
The latest outrage over students' emulating Nazis stems from the posting of a video snippet in August showing Pacifica students flashing the Nazi salute as at least one sings the German military song "Erika."
Garden Grove officialssaid the incident occurred in an off-campus banquet room before a larger school event in November. Administrators said they learned of it four months later, but details were initially sketchy.
The district said it would not disclose details about discipline, citing student privacy laws. California's educational code lets superintendents or principals suspend students for threatening or carrying out an act of "hate violence," although it's unclear whether the district applied that standard to this case.
The incident is part of a disturbing trend of rising white nationalism. The Southern Poverty Law Center found in its latest report that the number of neo-Nazi and other white supremacist chapters rose to 148 in 2018, up from 100 in 2017.
At the high school level, white supremacism often spreads from social media.
"We believe there are individuals who have a mission to create these kinds of situations and it's intentional," said Kenneth Inouye, president of the Orange County Human Relations Council, a nonprofit that develops violence prevention and other programs for schools and businesses. "But at the same time, we think a lot of young people think it's acceptable. And, of course, it's not."
Inouye, however, acknowledges the speed at which some comments are mainstreaming. Behavior that used to be unacceptable five years ago is common to see on TV news, he said. It's true across the country.
Four students at SAIL High School in Tallahassee, Florida, were suspended in December for laying down to form a human swastika in a field on campus. The incident had been brought to the attention of Leon County Schools officials by a concerned parent at the school.
Ferreting out culprits isn't always easy. Lori Mueller, superintendent of the Baraboo School District in Wisconsin, faced a similar situation when a photo surfaced late last year appearing to show about 60 male students giving the Nazi salute on the steps of the Sauk County Courthouse.
She said she fears the students didn't have an understanding of what they were doing - that they meant no harm, but they created harm by their action.
The photo was taken off-campus on a weekend. As a result, she said,the district was cautioned to respect the students' First Amendment freedom of speech right. Administrators didn't punish them.
Other administrators face the same dilemmas as they consider possible punishment.
In Noblesville, Indiana, a video surfaced of a high school student yelling profanities and hurling racial slurs while wrapped in a Nazi flag in January 2018. The school district called the incident "ugly," and an official noted students can be disciplined for illegal conduct that occurs on or off school grounds. But a police lieutenant said he wasn't aware of any laws having been broken.
Whether it's flags, salutes or other acts that show support for Nazis, all can be deemed free speech.
"Under basic First Amendment principles, a Nazi salute would generally be protected," said Dave Snyder, executive director of the First Amendment Coalition, a nonprofit group dedicated to freedom of speech. But not necessarily on campus. "The important variable is whether it is at school at a school function," Snyder said. And even then, it "depends on how you define 'school function.' "
Teaching to address 'ignorance'
Rather than focus on punishment, some districts instead have chosen to see the incidents as a teachable moment.
They have tried to beef up teaching around the rise of the Nazi movement and of the Holocaust, in some cases with field trips or encounters with Holocaust survivors. The lessons have been driven by a sense that while millennials and Generation Z certainly know about Adolf Hitler, they may be largely unaware of the scope of his party's beliefs.
Nazism included not only the genocide of Europe's Jews, Slavic people and Roma, also known as Gypsies. Nazi hatred has extended also to people of color, LGBTQ individuals, people with disabilities and Jehovah's Witnesses.
A 2018 survey of 1,350 American adults found that 22% of millennials either hadn't heard of the Holocaust or weren't sure they had heard of it, double the percentage among all U.S. adults. Nearly half of millennials - only 4 percentage points more than the general population - couldn't name a single concentration camp, according to the survey by Shoen Consulting on behalf of the Conference on Jewish Material Claims Against Germany.
In Newport Beach, another Orange County city, photographs surfaced in March showing a group of young people believed to be students or graduates of Newport Harbor High School rendering the Nazi salute around drinking cups arranged in the form of a swastika.
A "schoolwide response rally" was ordered that included a presentation by a Holocaust survivor, a grandmother of one of the students, a rabbi and student speakers. The district created a Human Relations Task Force to educate students, parents and teachers to fight hate.
The Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust reached out to the school district as word of the incident spread.
Whether it's the Nazi salute or the swastika, many of the students "really have no idea what the symbols represent, the true meaning behind it," said CEO Beth Kean. "A lot of it, we believe, comes from this place of ignorance."
She said students who come to the museum, such as those from Newport Harbor, are moved when they see concentration camp artifacts and hear from a survivor. It is a "very emotional visit," she said.
"When we brought in the kids from Newport Harbor ... they started crying seeing these objects," she said.
As for the growth in the acts themselves around the country, she said she isn't surprised.
"Each incident is another grim reminder of the times we find ourselves in," Kean said.
Pacifica High School, site of the latest Orange County video incident, is situated near the Vietnamese-American community known as Little Saigon. The student body was 36% white, 31% Latino and 25% Asian in the 2017-2018 school year. About 1.4% of the students are black.
Students said they viewed the video showing the Nazi salutes as a prank gone awry, but they acknowledged it needs to be taken seriously.
"It's not a joke," said Justine Terry, 15, a junior, because of the pain it brings.
It also brought disgrace to Pacifica. "I felt like they had to ruin it for the school," she said.
Peter Truong, a dad waiting in the pick-up line earlier this school year, said he discussed the incident with his kids, a 17-year-old daughter and a 14-year-old son who attend Pacifica. Truong, 57, of Garden Grove, cautioned them to stay away from troublemakers.
"I just told them: 'Try not to get involved with it -- stay away from those kinds of things,' " he said.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nazi salutes, swastikas: Should schools punish white supremacy acts?