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Swastika photo at O.C. teen party doesn't surprise some students: ‘That's the way it is’

Swastika photo at O.C. teen party doesn't surprise some students: ‘That's the way it is’
An image from Twitter shows a swastika made from red plastic cups at a party said to involve high school students from the Newport-Mesa Unified School District. (Twitter)

Jarring as the photos were, Jocelyn Navarro, a junior at Newport Harbor High School, 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.

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"Every one of them was laughing," said Jocelyn, 16. "They all had smiles on their faces."

The images have sent shockwaves across Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, with politicians and school officials strongly condemning the behavior.

Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials are investigating the incident and are holding a town hall meeting tonight.

But to some students, the photos underscore larger attitudes in the school system that have sown divisions.

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."

Both Josdel and Jocelyn said students who condemned the Nazi displays faced a backlash from the partygoers on social media, who defended the displays 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 said. "We don't have to be Jewish to be offended. We're offended because it's wrong."

"Their excuse is they were just drunk," she added, "but they obviously took the time to make the cups into a swastika."

Matt Hernandez, a 2016 graduate of Newport Harbor, 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.”

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Hernandez said there were visible symptoms of what he perceived to be an intolerant “social climate” at Newport Harbor — slurs and swastikas scrawled on bathroom stalls and in stairwells — but there were less explicit displays as well. Most Hispanic students ate lunch in a quad edged with gates, he said, and "white students would joke, ‘That’s where they belong, behind the wall.’ ”

"It was uncomfortable to walk where white students sat,” he added. "There was definitely a kind of segregation when I was there.” 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 trans 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.”

On Monday, Newport Harbor students poured out of school buildings wearing every shade of blue as an act of solidarity with the Jewish community.

“I’m very glad that we are all making a statement that the vast majority of us believe that this is disgusting,” senior Sam Quattrociocchi said during lunch. “Some people at the party thought they were making an edgy joke, and they were completely wrong.”

Fellow senior Timothy Shannon said “most people are trying to figure out ways to better ourselves out of it.”

Quattrociocchi said “the real problem is that a lot of real neo-Nazis and racists are coming away being emboldened by this.”

“I think the most unfortunate thing is that people are suddenly feeling comfortable spewing racist garbage,” he said.

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 apparently taken this weekend at a party not affiliated with the school system.

“I am heartsick and disgusted seeing kids in our community engage in anti-Semitism,” Assemblywoman Cottie Petrie-Norris (D-Laguna Beach) tweeted.

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