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After party featuring Nazi salutes and a swastika, Newport-Mesa students address culture of privilege and prejudice

The Newport Harbor High School theater was packed Monday night with community members lining the walls and crowding for a place to sit on steps.

In the wake of a weekend party in which smiling students were pictured giving Nazi salutes around a swastika made of red plastic cups during a drinking game, parents and students rose from the steps to give standing ovations to speakers who talked of change.

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“This isn't an isolated incident,” said Max Drakeford, a Newport Harbor senior who said anti-Semitic symbols often are invoked in comments and antics among students. “I pee next to swastikas in the bathroom. I write essays on desks with swastikas etched in them.”

But this time, he said, it happened to be photographed and shared widely on social media, triggering community outrage.

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Administrators in the Newport-Mesa Unified School District held a public forum Monday to address what transpired at the off-campus party Saturday night in Costa Mesa attended by sophomores and juniors from area high schools. Students have said teenagers from Newport Harbor, Costa Mesa and Estancia high schools were present.

More than anyone at the meeting, students aimed to focus the conversation not on the specifics of the incident and who was involved but on changing the social climate in which it occurred.

“I don’t think condemnation of the kids that did it or harassment of the kids that did anything is justifiable,” said Drakeford, who is Jewish and was accompanied Monday by his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor from Budapest, Hungary.

“What we need to focus on is educating people to the point that they aren’t ignorant enough to commit something like this,” Drakeford said. “The blame is on all of us. This environment allows [students] to feel comfortable doing that.”

Some who were at the party and others who defended it have said the Nazi symbolism was a joke and doesn’t mean the students who participated support Nazism.

But Newport Harbor sophomore and student government member Gina Leaman spoke of social and racial divisions on campus, including a tendency for Hispanic and white students to group among themselves. She said it foments a culture in which racial and anti-Semitic prejudices rarely are challenged.

“This is not OK,” she said.

“We live in an extremely privileged community, and that privilege can lead to bigotry and hate,” said Gina, who told of hearing jokes and other remarks jabbing at her Jewish faith as early as fourth grade. “It is your responsibility to stand up for what is right. It is the community’s responsibility to change the perception of hate in this community.

“It has been like this for far too long. Hold your children and your peers accountable. This must come to an end.”

One parent released apology letters from some students 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,” the parent’s child wrote.

Phil D’Agostino, Newport-Mesa director of student and community services, said the district began investigating the party early Sunday and has had conversations with more than two dozen students and their families.

“Where we have concluded it is appropriate to apply consequences, we have done so,” D’Agostino said.

A teacher who did not want her name used said three of her students who were identified as being at the party didn’t attend her class Monday. She said she didn’t know the details of why.

“This isn’t a time for us to be shaming kids who do stupid things,” said Jeanne Pepper Bernstein, the mother of Blaze Bernstein, 19, who was killed a little over a year ago in Lake Forest. Samuel Woodward of Newport Beach, a former arts school classmate of Bernstein’s, is accused of murdering him because Bernstein was gay.

“It’s time to educate,” Pepper Bernstein said. “It’s a learning opportunity for these kids and this community. I don’t think you realize when you live in such a beautiful, privileged place that there is a lot of ugliness in the world.”

Drakeford and Ben Kwong, a Newport Harbor senior who also is Jewish, wrote an open letter widely shared among students on social media in response to the events at the party.

“This is really just not who we are,” said Kwong, adding that most students “don’t harbor any anti-Semitic values.”

“There might have been like two kids” with anti-Semitic views who participated in the Holocaust-themed drinking game, Kwong said. But he was troubled that “of 20-plus people there, no one stepped up and said anything,” he said.

“I think they were just ignorant, a little insensitive,” Kwong said. “They didn’t know about the harm that the swastika carries.”

He implored parents in the theater to “tell your kids how to handle that, be a role model for shutting that idea down.”

During school Monday, students organized to wear blue in a show of solidarity with the Jewish community.

At Newport Harbor, students in all grade levels streamed out of school buildings at lunchtime in every shade of blue jeans, button-down shirts, T-shirts and school hoodies.

“It felt safe today,” Kwong said, “like anti-Semites receded back into the shadows.”

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

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