The parent who took a photo of Wisconsin high school boys giving what appears to be a Nazi salute on the steps of a local courthouse said Tuesday he was simply asking the teens to wave goodbye to their parents before they headed to a party and never anticipated the image would draw such widespread condemnation.
But Pete Gust, who has a son in the photo, said he understood why his photo of about 60 boys outside the Sauk County Courthouse in Baraboo last spring offended some people. About two-thirds of the boys have their right arms raised in the gesture.
“The optics aren’t good,” Gust told The Associated Press, but added: “There was never any inkling of that whatsoever. …. There was nothing intended in any way shape or form to simulate anything that was offensive to anyone.”
But one of the students in the photo who did not raise his arm, Jordan Blue, said he believes some of the students did intend to make the Nazi salute as a joke.
“It was very disrespectful to what my beliefs are, and it was a very bad representation of the senior class and the Baraboo School District, because by all means, the Baraboo School District does not support that kind of actions and it is a district that provides many opportunities for the students,” Blue told the Baraboo News Republic. “This is something that I will never forget.”
Gust had posted the photo to his photography business website, Wheel Memories, after it was taken in May. He took it down Monday and posted an apology after it surfaced in social media posts and was shared widely, prompting strong criticism from individuals and from Jewish organizations.
The Baraboo School District said it was looking into the matter, and local police said they are helping with that investigation,
“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,” district Superintendent Lori Mueller said in a letter to parents Monday.
At the Baraboo School Board meeting Monday night, about a half-dozen speakers addressed the matter.
Baraboo School Board President Kevin Vodak, stressing that he was speaking as a private citizen, said the photo “deeply disappointed me, shamed, appalled and angered me.”
“The photo has shaken to the core my personal belief of the process that we as a community and as a school district have made to be tolerant, inclusive, accepting and admitting of all of those who are different from ourselves,” he added.
Earlier Monday, about 100 people gathered near the courthouse for a unity rally organizers said was aimed at sending a positive message about Baraboo, a community of 12,000 some 115 miles northwest of Milwaukee.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland was among those criticizing the photo on social media.
“This is why every single day we work hard to educate. We need to explain what is the danger of hateful ideology rising,” the Auschwitz Memorial tweeted.