Former students at a Wisconsin school caught up in a Nazi salute storm have spoken out about a troubled history of racism and intolerance among students, and a willingness among staff to turn a blind eye.
Police announced on Monday they were investigating after a photo emerged on social media showing dozens of pupils - mostly 16 and 17 - from Baraboo High School apparently performing the “Sieg Heil” greeting during their junior prom.
One former student at the school in Baraboo, a town of around 12,000 people, said she knew some of the boys in the photo and that their behaviour was “definitely not surprising”.
“Some of the boys in this photo are notorious at our school for this kind of behaviour,” said the 19-year-old, who graduated earlier this year and wished to remain anonymous. “The day after Donald Trump was elected, some of the boys in the photo were shouting “white power” in the hallways and telling the ESL (English as a second language) students to go back to their own countries.
“I went to a school official, the only one that would meet with me, and I was told to toughen up, that there was nothing he could do because it was the boy’s first amendment right and he wasn’t harming anyone.
“He then proceeded to tell me to watch videos of Black Lives Matter protestors being hostile to police. I was stunned, and upset, and didn’t pursue it further because of the response I got when asking for help.”
She continued: “Basically, these boys use their privilege in horrible ways, knowing there will be no harsh consequences for their actions.”
The image of the teenagers performing the Nazi salute first surfaced on Twitter after it was shared by an account named “Welcome to Baraboo”. The post – now deleted – was captioned: “We even got the black kid to throw it up.”
A former student who graduated in 2016 told The Independent the Twitter account which posted the image was used to satirise the school and traditionally controlled by one or two senior students – including by him in his final year.
But this year, “essentially the entire senior class was given administrative access to the page”, allowing anyone to post on the social media platform.
The fact the photo was taken on the steps of the county courthouse, he said, was “almost symbolic of the systemic problem” Baraboo is facing.
Other current and former students shared their stories of the school with journalist Jules Suzdaltsev after he posted the photo on Twitter.
“The use of the n-word was pretty common among white students,” one said, while another who graduated this year said their four years at the school was “full of hearing the n-word shouted down the hall and dealing with homophobia”.
In the photo, the huge majority of the group appear to be white, and all but a few appear to performing the salute.
Only one teenager in the picture is neither performing the salute, nor laughing. He told Mr Suzdaltsev he felt “uncomfortable” when the picture was taken and was unable to leave as it happened too fast. He said the photographer asked the students to make the sign.
“I knew what my morals were and it was not to salute something I firmly didn’t believe in," he said. "I attend BHS (Baraboo High School), these classmates have bullied me since entering middle school, I have struggled with it my entire life and nothing has changed.”
Baraboo High School and the company allegedly hired to take the photograph have been contacted for comment.
"Unfortunately, based on what these students see coming from the White House, some of them may believe what they have done is acceptable," Jon Erbenbach, a Democratic Wisconsin senator, said about the photo.
"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."