A series of photos featuring a group of teenagers crowded around a swastika made of red plastic cups – laughing, toasting and Sieg Heiling over the Nazi symbol – is shaking swaths of predominantly white and affluent communities across Orange County, Calif., where at least some of the teens are enrolled in high school.
The pictures were taken at a recent party and posted to Twitter and Snapchat over the weekend, going viral and ultimately capturing the attention of local law enforcement and Newport-Mesa Unified School District officials which have both launched investigations into the students’ activities.
“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,” the district told NPR in an emailed statement.
The statement followed letter sent to parents on Sunday confirming some students “created inappropriate anti-semitic symbols.”
“Many times off-campus student actions, under the care of their parents and guardians, negatively impact our educational environment. We take our responsibility to students seriously when they are in our care and when their actions outside our care impact our learning environment,” officials said, adding that the district does not “shy away from this responsibility.”
Adriana Angulo, a spokesperson for the district, told NPR officials are cooperating with Costa Mesa and Newport Beach Police Departments in an investigation to determine a course of action. Students are suspected of underage drinking.
Most of the teenage boys and girls in the photo are hamming it up for the camera, celebrating as nearly all raise as their right hand to deliver what looks like the Nazi salute. A few can be seen holding their phones and at least one girl appears to be taking a picture of the swastika made up of about 100 red plastic cups that look as though they’ve been set up to play a white supremacist version of the popular drinking game, beer pong.
Several outraged Instagram and Twitter users have been spreading screen grabs of the images online, adding what they say are the names of the individuals involved — an act that is drawing some criticism from people who argue the students are too young to have their identities published.
Charlene Metoyer, president of the school board, told The Mercury News she was “simply devastated.”
“As a school board, we’re not only concerned by the underage drinking, but also the mental health of the students who participated in this horrendous act and all their fellow students who will be affected by it. This is appalling to not just our Jewish student community, but to all of us who care about human rights.”
Keegan Hankes, a senior researcher at the Southern Poverty Law Center Intelligence Project, told NPR the number of hate groups are on the rise in Orange County. Over the last year, the organization has identified eight new groups, including some that “have made a calculated attempt to bring younger people into the movement.”
According to Hankes there has been a national shift among white supremacist and neo-Nazi groups. “It wasn’t that long ago that we were having conversations about whether the movement was going to age out. You would go to conferences and it would be an audience full of white men in their late 30s and up. Now, you go to the same conferences and they’re sold out and the average age has dropped by 20 years,” Hankes explained.
Groups like Patriot Front, a spin-off of Vanguard America that was founded by Thomas Rousseau when he was 19 years old, and Identity Europa, aggressively try to recruit teens on high school and college campuses, Hankes said. He noted that the Internet and social media outlets have proved invaluable to recruitment efforts by these groups and hastened the spread of their racist ideologies.
The Anti-Defamation League noted the largest single-year increase in anti-Semitic activity in 2017, since it began tracking incidents in 1979. As NPR’s Emily Sullivan reported, that year “K-12 schools surpassed public areas as the locations with the highest number of anti-Semitic incidents.”
“There were 457 incidents in K-12 schools: a dramatic increase of 94 percent from the previous year. On college campuses, there were 204 incidents: an 89 percent increase,” Sullivan reported.
In November, a group of Wisconsin students created a viral prom photo in which a few dozen boys posed in the Nazi salute.
A student at Newport Harbor High School told the Los Angeles Times she was not necessarily surprised by the photos featuring the swastika or the Nazi salute. Jocelyn Navarro told the paper most students self-segregate into groups of people with similar ethnic backgrounds. Additionally, she said she’s witnessed instances of casual racism on campus.
Meanwhile, Josdel Hernandez said the some members of the junior class recently wrapped up a lesson on the Holocaust as part of the history curriculum, adding that it’s unlikely the students in the photos were unaware of any offense the Nazi pose might cause.
“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.”
School district leaders have scheduled two community meetings — Monday and Thursday — to discuss the offensive social media posts.
“This is a time to come together to ensure that we have a common understanding of good values and moral judgments to instill upon our youth,” the district said.