At the house party in Costa Mesa, the high school students were playing a drinking game with red Solo cups and pingpong balls. At some point in the night, the plastic cups ended up in the shape of a swastika.
It’s not clear how many people helped form the symbol, but a parent of a student who was at the party said that as cups were added and moved around, someone noted that it was starting to look like a swastika and completed the image. When it was done, a dozen or so teenagers crowded around the display and posed for photos, their arms raised in a Nazi salute.
“German rage cage,” one partygoer captioned a photo, presumably referencing the popular drinking game “rage cage,” before posting it on Snapchat.
“Ultimate rage,” another wrote.
The images quickly spread across social media early Sunday, drawing shock and outrage from peers, parents and politicians who strongly condemned the behavior. Costa Mesa police took a report and, with the Newport-Mesa Unified School District and Newport Beach police, have interviewed about two dozen students. Students from Newport Harbor, Estancia and Costa Mesa high schools attended the party.
“Every one of them was laughing. They all had smiles on their faces,” said Jocelyn Navarro, a junior at Newport Harbor High School who was not there. “Their excuse is they were just drunk, but they obviously took the time to make the cups into a swastika.”
The parent, who did not want to be identified, said that on Sunday he invited a Holocaust scholar to his home to speak with nine students who had attended the party. Some students who had defended the conduct did not accept invitations to his home, but the students who did go expressed remorse and decided to write apology letters. The parent released the letters on Monday evening.
“I am ashamed none of us stepped up to take down this sign, and we should have stepped up right then and there to say it’s not right,” his child wrote.
At least one of the students has received a death threat, the parent added.
“These are children who made a big mistake,” he said.
But for many students in Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, the anti-Semitic display reflects larger attitudes in the school system that have sown divisions at a time when anti-Semitic incidents at schools across the country have increased.
Several Jewish students said the anti-Semitism displayed over the weekend was no unexpected spasm of hatred but the outgrowth something more entrenched — literally etched into the desks and bathrooms of their school.
“I pee in stalls with swastikas written on them. I write on desks with swastikas carved in them,” Maxwell Drakeford, a 17-year-old senior, said at a town hall meeting Monday night. “I’ve had kids throw change on the floor and say, ‘Pick it up, Jew boy.’ ”
Maxwell’s 82-year-old grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, attended the meeting and was given a standing ovation.
He grew up hearing her story, how she endured Nazi persecution in her native Hungary, and “when she tells it to me,” Maxwell said, “I can see it so vividly.”
“It’s sad,” he continued, “that 75 years later I have to witness the symbol of the people who persecuted her.”
Josdel Hernandez, a 16-year-old junior at Newport Harbor, said ignorance is no excuse for the anti-Semitic spectacle. The students 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.”
Both Josdel and Jocelyn said students who condemned the Nazi displays faced a backlash from the partygoers on social media, who defended the behavior as a big joke and questioned why people not of Jewish heritage were upset.
“They said you’re not even Jewish — why are you getting all offended,” Jocelyn, 16, said. “We don’t have to be Jewish to be offended. We’re offended because it’s wrong.”
Some students wore blue on Monday in solidarity with the Jewish community.
Matt Hernandez, who graduated from Newport Harbor in 2016, said he wasn’t surprised “at all” that students from his alma mater would embrace Nazi imagery at a party. The surprise, he said, was that so many students condemned the displays so swiftly.
“I’m sure this has happened in the past,” he said. “It’s just this time, someone posted it on Snapchat.”
Hernandez said there were visible symptoms of what he perceived to be an intolerant “social climate” at Newport Harbor, but there were less explicit displays as well. Most Latino students ate lunch in a quad edged with gates, he said, and “white students would joke, ‘That’s where they belong, behind the wall.’ ”
He added: “It was uncomfortable to walk where white students sat. There was definitely a kind of segregation when I was there.”
Jocelyn said that type of culture still exists on campus.
“Everybody’s close-minded,” she said. “White people stay together, Mexicans stay together. We naturally just do it because we know that’s the way it is.”
Hernandez, who now attends Orange Coast College in Costa Mesa, emphasized that this attitude was held by students, not by teachers or staff. Hernandez is transgender and said his teachers supported him and helped allay his fears of coming out.
Hernandez has no answers for how students from his former school arrived at an embrace of Nazi imagery. But he recalled the distance his classmates tried to put between themselves and racist jokes they cracked.
They’d follow them, he said, with the disclaimer: “But I’m not a bad person — it’s just a joke.”
At Costa Mesa High School on Monday morning, Principal Jacob Haley told the campus over the public address system that he was disappointed that some of his students attended the party. At Estancia High School, some teachers lectured on underage drinking.
In Costa Mesa, the mother of two students who went to the party said she was “very upset” about their presence. She said her anger and sadness stems from the fact that she and her family are Jewish.
“We’re still learning about what happened,” said the woman, who declined to give her name. “The kids go out with their friends all the time. I’ve never seen my kids drink. I’ve never seen them drunk.”
Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials are working to discover who attended the party and had a role in the incident to determine the course of action the district could take. But since the incident happened off campus on a weekend, it’s unclear what disciplinary actions the district can take under the law.
The fallout from the Costa Mesa party comes as anti-Semitic incidents at schools and colleges are on the rise, nearly doubling in 2017 from 2016, according to the Anti-Defamation League.
In 2017, K-12 schools surpassed public areas as the places with the most reports of anti-Semitic incidents. The organization logged 457 anti-Semitic incidents in non-Jewish schools that year, up from 235 in 2016 and 114 in 2015, the ADL said. Jewish institutions and schools also saw incidents double, jumping from 170 in 2016 to 342 in 2017.
Peter Levi, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League in Orange County, said he hasn’t seen any evidence that the students who made Nazi salutes were Nazis or Nazi sympathizers, but said their actions “normalize hate.”
“They normalized swastikas. They normalized Nazi salutes,” he said. “And it’s not just them, it’s probably happening all over the place — they’re the ones who took pictures on social media and got caught.”
Levi said he was “deeply concerned” by their actions and the increase among teens and youth as a whole.
“What starts as jokes then becomes social exclusion then becomes discrimination,” he said. “No hate crime murder started that day. That person started years ago peddling in jokes and stereotypes.”
Times staff writer Hannah Fry contributed to this report.