Newport Beach school officials on Sunday said they are investigating images posted on social media appearing to show a group of partying students — arms outstretched in a Nazi salute — gathered around red plastic cups arranged in the shape of a swastika.
Some of the people in the images are believed to be students or recent graduates of Newport Harbor High School, one official said. The other high schools in the district are Costa Mesa, Estancia, Early College and Corona del Mar.
The photos were allegedly taken this weekend at a party not affiliated with the school system.
Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials said they sent a letter to parents on Sunday.
“We were recently made aware of social media postings involving some students who created inappropriate anti-semitic symbols, and possible underage drinking,” the letter said. “While these actions did not occur on any school campus or school function, we condemn all acts of anti-semitism and hate in all their forms.”
Martha Fluor, vice president of the school board, said Supt. Fred Navarro first alerted district officials about the incident Sunday morning. Many of them received messages and emails from concerned parents and community members soon after, she said.
“I find it just reprehensible that we still have pockets of our community that still think this is OK,” Fluor said. “This is unacceptable behavior both from a health standpoint with potential underage drinking as well as from a moral and ethical position.”
She added that school and district officials met Sunday to discuss the incident and are working with law enforcement officials and others to determine appropriate disciplinary action.
“We remain focused on educating students on all aspects of life’s challenges and are committed to holding students accountable, educating them on the consequences of their choices, and the impact these actions have on our schools and community at large,” the district said.
“We are asking that parents please partner with us in helping students make good decisions, be respectful of others, and to always use good judgment.”
Students expressed outrage over the images.
Bianca Lutz, a 16-year-old Newport Harbor student, said she was “extremely disturbed by the ignorance of those at the party” and said some of her Jewish friends felt threatened.
Some students from Newport Harbor have asked their classmates to wear blue — the school’s color — on Monday in a united stand against hate, according to a report from ABC 7.
Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean at the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, said that the images shouldn’t be taken lightly and that all students involved should be suspended.
“This is an insult to the 6 million Jews who died in the Holocaust,” Cooper said. “It’s also an insult to the many thousands of families in Southern California whose loved ones in the Greatest Generation fought, bled and died to defeat the Nazis and defeat the swastika.”
The incident is a reminder that educating younger generations about the historical oppression of marginalized communities is still of great importance, Cooper said.
The Anti-Defamation League runs several educational programs in Orange County schools, but not at Newport Harbor High School, said Rabbi Peter Levi, regional director of the organization’s Orange County chapter.
“The goal is not to be reactionary when a school has such a horrific incident, but to be constantly talking with young people about hatred, about bias, so that the students themselves would’ve never let this happen,” Levi said.
Nazi salutes are never jokes, Levi added, and treating them as such normalizes bigotry and helps lay the foundation for much bigger problems, like violence against Jewish people.
The number of documented acts of anti-Semitism in the U.S. has been on the rise in recent years. The Anti-Defamation League noted a 58% jump in such incidents from 2016-17. The sharp rise was due, in part, to a significant increase in incidents at schools and on college campuses, the organization said.
A high school outside Minneapolis made national news in mid-January after a photo surfaced of two students throwing Nazi salutes over a Hitler-themed invitation to a school dance. This came two months after a group of Wisconsin students appeared to give a Nazi salute in a viral prom photo.
Cooper said these incidents could signify a dangerous cultural shift in America.
“If there was once upon a time a taboo associated with Nazi imagery and insignias,” he said, “I think that era is, unfortunately, long past.”
As jarring as the photos were, Jocelyn Navarro, a junior at Newport Harbor, said she wasn’t surprised when they surfaced on Snapchat and Twitter Sunday morning. Not by the red cups arranged in a swastika. Not by the arms outstretched in Nazi salutes. Not even by the gleeful expressions worn by the high school students hoisting them.
“Every one of them was laughing,” said Jocelyn, 16. “They all had smiles on their faces.”
At Newport Harbor, she said, students group themselves along racial lines: Hispanic students with other hispanics, whites with whites. It is less intentional than unconscious, she said: “White people stay together, Mexicans stay together. We naturally just do it because we know that’s the way it is.”
Josdel Hernandez, a junior at Newport Harbor, said she’s seen incidents of more casual racism at school: A student doodling a swastika on a desk, for example, or cracking a joke about Nazism.
Josdel, 16, said ignorance is no excuse for the anti-Semitism displayed at the weekend party. The students depicted in the photos are juniors like herself, she said, and just last month they studied the Holocaust in history class.
“They showed us graphic videos of the concentration camps,” she said. “It’s not like our teachers need to show us anymore about the Holocaust. They knew what it means.”