In March, social media blew up with photos of a group of partying students from Newport Beach and Costa Mesa giving the Sieg Heil salute to a bunch of red plastic cups arranged into a swastika. School officials immediately condemned the images, notifying parents across the district what had happened and what they planned to do.
The same month, school officials in Garden Grove were alerted to a group of Pacifica High School students raising the Nazi salute while singing a Nazi marching song at an off-campus athletic event.
Pacifica High administrators kept their situation quiet — which worked until this week, when the months-old recorded Snapchat video exploded online after it was sent to the Daily Beast.
Since Monday, Garden Grove Unified School District officials have learned of other videos and multiple allegations of students engaged in hate speech. The district has opened an investigation.
The students’ motivation and identities are unclear. But the images in Newport and Garden Grove reflect both a rise in such incidents nationwide and a conflict more specific to Orange County: tension between a rapidly diversifying populace and racist elements deeply seated in its history.
In September, at a football game in predominantly white Aliso Viejo, the visitors from a predominantly Latino high school in Santa Ana were met with signs of “Build the Wall” and “We love White,” according to the Santa Ana principal.
And white supremacist groups like the Rise Above Movement are giving a new voice to the bigotry of the skinheads and peckerwood gangs that long haunted Huntington Beach, Anaheim and working-class parts of the county. The group attacked counter-protesters and journalists at a rally in support of President Trump at Bolsa Chica State Beach in 2017.
The eight-second video from Garden Grove shows about a dozen Pacifica High school boys standing in what appears to be a banquet room giving the stiff-armed salute used in Nazi Germany, as the song “Erika,” written by German composer Herms Niel during Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power, plays in the background. At least one of the boys appears to sing the lyrics. One boy gets up and leaves, and another quickly drops his arm and sits down.
The video, taken before the start of an athletics banquet in November 2018, was originally shared among a small group of students on Snapchat. High school administrators learned of the video four months later and addressed the situation internally with the students appearing in the video and their families, Garden Grove Unified spokeswoman Abby Broyles said. School district officials did not know about the video until it surfaced Monday.
The students involved were disciplined, but officials declined to discuss the consequences they faced.
Since Monday, several other videos showing students engaged in hate speech have surfaced. Those videos and the initial one, Broyles said, will be investigated.
“This new information, which continues to unfold minute by minute, demands a school-wide call to action to address the severity of these claims to ensure hate speech never happens again,” Pacifica High School Principal Steve Osborne said. “Hate speech will not be tolerated. This is not who we are. Rest assured that any students engaging in hate speech or activities will face disciplinary action in accordance with the California education code.”
Osborne apologized during a school board meeting Tuesday for failing to address the original video with the entire school immediately after it was brought to administrators’ attention. He added that the school had been in communication with the Anti-Defamation League and the Museum of Tolerance in an effort to expand anti-bias education for students.
“We did a disservice to the entire school community by limiting our actions to the small group of students involved,” he said. “We are sorry that our investigation and our transparency with the Pacifica community fell drastically short. In retrospect, our judgment was wrong, and we take full responsibility for that.”
Although the students have not been identified by school officials, Osborne described allegations that they are water polo team members as “misinformation.”
The situation has roiled the campus, sparking anger among teachers, parents and community members.
Ana Tourtellotte, an 11th-grade U.S. history teacher at Pacifica, criticized officials at the board meeting for keeping the incident secret.
“By not being able to both directly and publicly confront this sort of behavior, [it] makes us feel like we were robbed of a significant teaching opportunity, and frankly, it made us feel like fools,” she said.
Flo Martin, 77, who taught German at Pacifica High School for more than 20 years, said she always made sure her students had an in-depth understanding of the brutality of the Holocaust. She said anti-Semitic behavior among students had been an ongoing issue at the school.
“It’s an undercurrent,” Martin said, “and now because of social media, everything like that is coming to the surface.”
Experiences of past and current students appear to range at the school, though many are hesitant to be named or interviewed.
Some have said on social media that they were not surprised about the actions of these students, though a pair of girls leaving the school Wednesday said they didn’t think these videos represented the views of more than a dozen boys.
Outside the school, a father waiting for his son, a Pacifica High senior, said administrators should have notified parents about the incident as soon as they found out in March. He asked for anonymity because his family is of Mexican descent and he does not want his son to be targeted, he said.
“Were they on vacation or what?” he said.
“They should have brought this to our attention … for the safety of our kids.”
Now, the school should offer counseling to all students, and administrators should reaffirm that what took place in the video was wrong and racist, he said.
“What do we have to be prepared for? Every morning we have to wake [worrying] if my son is going to make it home?”
Alecsandria Deleon, a graduate from Pacifica in 2017 and two-time class president, said she worries about a white supremacist element on campus and fears that her friends who are still at the school could be targets of racism.
“That’s just scary for them to think that something like that is OK,” she said.
She remembers learning about the Holocaust early in high school and doing research because she was fascinated by the topic and experiences of survivors. But she said even a scholarly interest wouldn’t introduce someone to the song the boys were singing.
“How do they know this song?” she asked.
The number of documented acts of anti-Semitism in the U.S. has been on the rise in recent years. The Anti-Defamation League noted a 57% jump in such incidents from 2016 to 2017. The sharp rise was due, in part, to a significant increase in incidents at schools and on college campuses, the organization said.
Leaders at groups dedicated to combating anti-Semitism said that the incident at Pacifica is an opportunity for more education.
Jordanna Gessler, director of education at the Los Angeles Museum of the Holocaust, said she contacted Pacifica’s principal and the Garden Grove Unified School District after learning of the video to offer resources.
“We believe that this is an incident that doesn’t necessarily come from hate but maybe comes from a gap in knowledge,” Gessler said.
Gessler, who oversees educational programs in classrooms as well as tours at the museum, said that most students who come to the museum know very little about the Holocaust.
“The No. 1 thing they say is Hitler’s name,” she said. “That’s really all they know — ‘Hitler’ and maybe ‘Jews.’”
The students were transformed, Gessler said. Many wrote thank-you notes afterward explaining that they thought they were participating in a joke but now understood the seriousness of the topic.
Gessler said that as the events of World War II become more distant, educators need to make instruction on the Holocaust more relatable and digestible for today’s students, who consume media on Snapchat and Instagram instead of in hours-long documentaries.
“When kids might not understand the true meaning behind a Hitler salute or a swastika … when people don’t understand things deeply,” she said, “they tend to be uncomfortable and they make jokes.”
Nguyen writes for Times Community News. Times staff writers Nina Agrawal and Hannah Fry contributed to this report.