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Baraboo residents discuss response to prom photo controversy at forum

November 17, 2018
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Attendees of a community forum at the Baraboo Civic Center huddle in groups Thursday night.

During a forum Thursday night, a group of Baraboo residents responded to a high school prom photo that offended many and spawned a broader discussion about intolerance.

Speaking before a crowd in the Civic Center gymnasium, Baraboo School District employee Alex Paulson, who organized the event, warned participants that the evening may not bring about closure. He said discussions should be centered on change, and would likely be uncomfortable.

“Sitting with that discomfort is something we’re going to have to do,” Paulson said as he prepared attendees for what was to come.

The forum was in response to a photo that surfaced early this week on social media. It showed Baraboo High School class of 2019 boys laughing as they posed for a pre-prom photo on the courthouse steps in May.

Many of the boys were raising their right arms, and some of their arms and fingers were straightened, apparently mimicking a Nazi salute. One boy in the front row smiled as he made a hand gesture that has been used to symbolize white supremacy.

The publicity prompted current and former students to come forward, disclosing prior instances of bullying and racial intolerance that they said were not taken seriously by school officials.

Those who attended Thursday’s forum brainstormed about a platform for change, and specific action that can be taken. Participants decided to continue the conversations, scheduling a second forum Nov. 26 at a time and place to be determined.

“If I can offer my dad’s journey as part of healing, I’d be happy to,” said Judith Reed, who traveled from Oconomowoc to attend the forum.

She brought with her a metal suitcase that belonged to her father, who survived four Nazi concentration camps during World War II before making his way to the United States. Reed offered to help educate the Baraboo teens on the horrors of the Holocaust.

Baraboo resident Sandy Roemer said she looks at the incident as an opportunity, noting that the Auschwitz Memorial Museum in Poland has weighed in on the controversy to stress the importance of education.

Roemer said sending the teen boys — and anyone else in the community who is interested — to the museum over spring break would cost about $1,000 per person. She said it seemed likely that the museum would be open to starting a dialogue with the school district.

By taking responsibility for what happened, educating themselves, and taking proactive steps to do right by those they offended, Roemer said the boys could turn the incident into a positive. She said prospective employers may even see the boys’ perseverance through such an ordeal as a plus.

“They’d be able to say, ‘I can bring this expertise to your organization and you want me here because of the mistake that I made,’” Roemer said.

Although most who attended Thursday’s forum were focused on moving forward, some said the controversy was all over nothing. They said the boys did nothing wrong and that the photo was taken out of context.

In one group discussion, a Baraboo woman said that before the community takes any action, it first must find out exactly what happened. She believed the account of the parent photographer, Peter Gust of Baraboo, who said the boys merely waved to their parents as he instructed.

“That’s what it was,” the woman said. “That’s all that it was. It’s unfortunate how it turned out to look.”

Jordan Blue, a student who did not raise his arm in the photo, told CNN this week that some of the boys took the photographer’s instruction “in a way that was out of control.” He said he became uncomfortable when he noticed “the amount of intent that was some of my peers’ arms.”

The anonymous @GoBaraboo Twitter account recently posted the photo with the caption, “We even got the black kid to throw it up #BarabooProud.” Investigations by the school district and police are underway.

One woman said the boys pictured have been “through hell” in the last week, and she pleaded with the community not to discard them.

“Mercy triumphs over judgment, and we’ve got to help them,” she said.

Aside from a need for education, which was repeatedly mentioned as an action step Thursday, other common themes included restorative justice, accountability, bullying, parenting and communication.

Baraboo Mayor Mike Palm told attendees at the end of the forum that he was proud of the community’s willingness to take action in response to the incident.

“Monday, obviously, was my worst day as mayor,” he said. “Today was my best.”

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