More than 6,000 people have signed an online petition calling on a Wisconsin school system to suspend students who appear to be giving a Nazi salute in a group photograph shot before their spring prom in May.
Administrator Lori Mueller of the Baraboo School District has said she is investigating the photo and will take appropriate action, but repeated efforts to speak with her a day after the photo was publicized Monday were not successful.
Regardless of any discipline from Baraboo High School, about 100 miles northwest of Milwaukee, the image could have far-reaching consequences for the young men pictured there, according to a university administrator.
"This could very well have an impact on their ability to get into college," said Stefanie Niles, vice president for enrollment and communications at Ohio Wesleyan University and president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling.
► Nov. 12: Teens at (almost) all-white school give Nazi salute
► Nov. 1: He was a neo-Nazi: How one white supremacist renounced hate
► Aug. 28: J.D. Martinez defends pro-gun Instagram post featuring Adolf Hitler
"Everything has a reverberating effect," she said. "I think a lot of those young men will have a variety of responses from the institutions that were considering them."
Ellen Weiland, an assistant to Mueller, said the fallout already may have begun. She has heard that some students who already have graduated have had scholarships withdrawn though she was unable to verify that.
And she has fielded several calls from individuals saying they planned to ask their alma maters not to accept students from Baraboo, a four-year high school with almost 1,000 students.
"It's very sad," she said.
The photograph drew international condemnation this week after it went viral on social media. The image, taken by a professional photographer and a parent of one of the students, shows about 60 young men standing on the steps of the Sauk County Courthouse before their prom.
About 30 appear to be giving the Nazi salute and one, in the front row, is flashing a three-fingered OK sign that many have come to associate with white power movements.
The ensuing social media discussion included posts, reportedly by current and former students, describing an atmosphere at the school where racist comments and attitudes were commonplace and administrators did little to address them.
The incident comes amid a rise in white nationalist rhetoric and organizations. Late last month, residents in Baraboo and other Sauk County communities found white nationalist propaganda in their mailboxes, prompting some to mobilize against hate in their communities.
Elana Kahn, director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said Tuesday a coalition of state and national Jewish groups would be reaching out to the Baraboo School District to offer anti-bias resources — including Holocaust survivors and their family members — who could help students better understand the context and consequences of their actions.
"We are much more interested in education than punishment," Kahn said. Her organization, part of the Milwaukee Jewish Federation, tracks anti-Semitic incidents in Wisconsin.
"I really think we need to rethink how schools teach values," she said. "The point is to make sure we're raising kids who can be leaders in a diverse society."
Pete Gust, the former-teacher-turned-photographer who shot the image, told The Associated Press that he had asked the teens to wave goodbye to their parents before heading off to prom.
Jordan Blue, one of the students, who did not raise his arm, said he believes some of the students intended to make the Nazi salute as a joke.
“When I saw what was happening, I was so upset," Blue told WITI-TV, Milwaukee. "If I knew what was happening, I would not have gone up there. I don't believe in that kind of disrespect."
Gust had posted the photo to his photography business website, Wheel Memories, after it was taken in May. He took it down Monday and posted an apology after it surfaced in social media posts and was shared widely, prompting strong criticism from individuals and Jewish organizations.
The Baraboo School District said it was looking into the matter, and local police said they are helping with that investigation,
“If the gesture is what it appears to be, the district will pursue any and all available and appropriate actions, including legal, to address the issue,” Mueller said in a letter to parents Monday.
At the Baraboo School Board meeting Monday night, about a half dozen speakers addressed the matter.
Baraboo School Board President Kevin Vodak, stressing that he was speaking as a private citizen, said the photo “deeply disappointed me, shamed, appalled and angered me.”
“The photo has shaken to the core my personal belief of the process that we as a community and as a school district have made to be tolerant, inclusive, accepting and admitting of all of those who are different from ourselves,” he said. The school and community of 12,000 are more than 90% white.
Earlier Monday, about 100 people gathered near the courthouse for a unity rally that organizers said was aimed at sending a positive message about Baraboo.
“The point is to show Baraboo is about love,” organizer Sherri Schaaf said.
Contributing: The Associated Press. Follow Annysa Johnson on Twitter: @JSEdbeat