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High school in Indio to conduct sensitivity training after student wears Nazi costume to class

An Indio high school is conducting sensitivity training for its students after a sophomore girl came to class dressed as a Nazi on Halloween. 

The Shadow Hills High School student, whose name has not been released, wore a brown military uniform with a red armband bearing a swastika Monday, said Mary Perry, a spokeswoman for the Desert Sands Unified School District. 

Principal Marcus Wood that morning asked the girl to remove the costume, and “the student was very contrite, very apologetic,” saying it was not her intent to upset people, Perry said. The girl quickly removed the costume.

“She considers herself a student of history and felt it was a historical costume without understanding the historical ramifications of it,” Perry said. The principal had multiple discussions with the student and her parents, and he has discussed the incident with the student body and sent messages to parents, Perry said. 

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She considers herself a student of history and felt it was a historical costume without understanding the historical ramifications of it.
Mary Perry, spokeswoman for the Desert Sands Unified School District

“This certainly has been an opportunity to talk to this student and the entire student body about why this isn’t acceptable,” Perry said. 

Pictures of the girl in her costume circulated on Twitter and on Snapchat, but many of the posts have been deleted, Perry said. A Snapchat video showing the girl included the caption “My favorite nazi,” the Desert Sun reported. District officials termed the situation an “isolated incident” and said that it caused no safety concerns.

Desert Sands Unified School District board member Wendy Jonathan said in an interview that she was “disappointed” in the student’s decision. The girl made a conscious effort to make the costume, which you can’t easily buy in a store, Jonathan said. 

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“There’s no excuse for coming to school dressed like that,” she said. “She said she was a history buff, so obviously she knew to some degree what she was coming dressed as.”

Jonathan said students in the district read “The Diary of Anne Frank” as part of their curriculum and are taught about the Holocaust. 

“I’m hoping we can really nip this in the bud and hope it’s understood that kind of behavior, and I don’t care if it’s Halloween or not, is not acceptable,” Jonathan said. “Just like we have zero tolerance for knives or drugs, we have zero tolerance for something that is hate speech.”

Jonathan alerted the Anti-Defamation League about the incident.

Amanda Susskind, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League, said she was encouraged by the school’s swift response in asking the student to remove the costume and in seeking outside resources to address the issue. The Anti-Defamation League, which works to combat anti-Semitism and other prejudices, already had sensitivity training planned at Shadow Hills High in December, and it will now likely address the costume situation, she said.

Although neo-Nazi groups and white supremacists in the area “do prey on teenagers and particularly boys,” it appears the student who wore the costume was “not somebody radicalized by a hate group,” Susskind said. 

“The school said she was really mortified and embarrassed,” she said. 

Such incidents are not uncommon on high school and college campuses and other locations nationwide, Susskind said. 

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“Every year at Halloween, we’ll get at least one ‘somebody dressed up as Hitler’ call,” she said.

Young people now are further removed from the Holocaust as a remembered event and don’t necessarily always understand why Nazi references, slurs and jokes are so inappropriate, she said.

“High schoolers today are also born into an era in which the way they communicate is not face-to-face,” she said. “They are born into a computer and texting and emoji and non-verbal age, and I do think there is a slower maturation process in the realm of empathy,” Susskind said. 

The Anti-Defamation League has been working with the district closely in recent years because of several other incidents. 

Shadow Hills High came under scrutiny earlier this year after several students wore stickers showing a rainbow pattern in a circle with a line through it that were perceived as anti-gay. Some of the stickers were stuck to students’ identification badges.

School administrators, citing free-speech rights, initially said they could not ask the students to stop wearing the symbol but later reversed course — after students and teachers complained that the symbol made LGBT students feel unwelcome — and asked for the symbol to not be worn on campus. 

Last year, an administrator at Palm Desert High School, also in the Desert Sands Unified School District, drew heavy criticism for a lighthearted tweet about Anne Frank before an upcoming school play about her life, according to the Desert Sun.

“Who Be Hiding From Nazis? Find out next week during the play. #annefrank” tweeted Charles Mazet, the school’s assistant principal of discipline. 

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He later responded to the backlash on Twitter, writing: “This tweet was not meant as a joke, just an attempt to promote Anne Frank. We need to remember the ugliness of Hitler’s genocide.”

In 2010, a group of students at another Desert Sands Unified School District school, La Quinta High, were disciplined for a late-night game of tag on school grounds that they called “Beat the Jew.” The game, organized on Facebook, involved students, called “Jews,” being pursued by “Nazis.”

Susskind said that although the school district has received attention for the incidents, she is encouraged by the administrators’ willingness to address the issues. 

“A lot of schools have incidents that we never hear about,” she said. “We have a school district that is being transparent and having the discussions and calling for resources and help, and that is a good thing.” 

hailey.branson@latimes.com

Twitter: @haileybranson

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