Newport-Mesa Unified School District Superintendent Fred Navarro sent an alert about the photo to district administrators and board members, said school board president Charlene Metoyer.

The Newport-Mesa Unified School District in Costa Mesa on Sunday, March 3, 2019. A photo of a group of smiling students flashing a Nazi salute while surrounding a swastika formed by red plastic cups posted on social media. Some of the students involved in the incident attend Newport Harbor High School, according to the school board president, who added it occurred at an off-campus party. Newport Harbor High School shown in Newport Beach. (Photo by Leonard Ortiz, Orange County Register/SCNG)

By DEEPA BHARATH | [email protected] | Orange County RegisterPUBLISHED: March 3, 2019 at 1:19 pm | UPDATED: March 4, 2019 at 6:48 am

A photo of a group of smiling students flashing a Nazi salute while surrounding a swastika formed by red plastic cups posted on social media shocked the Newport Beach community, Jewish leaders and others on Sunday morning.

Newport-Mesa Unified School District Superintendent Fred Navarro sent an alert about the photo to district administrators and board members, said school board President Charlene Metoyer, who added that they’ve identified several students in that photo who attend Newport Harbor High School.

Students from other high schools in the district also were reportedly at the party, but officials said Sunday that they were still investigating and would not comment further.

Metoyer said the incident occurred at an off-campus party that was not authorized by the school.

“I was simply devastated to see that,” Metoyer said of the photo. “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.”

Clip from video showing Newport Harbor students drinking and creating swastika.

Metoyer said district and school administrators along with a crisis team were meeting on campus Sunday to determine “next steps” and possible disciplinary action against the students who were involved.

“I’d like to see genuine remorse from the perpetrators here,” she said. “They need to learn about what those symbols mean and how devastating it is to see it occurring in 2019. We obviously need to do a better job of providing education and awareness.”

The school district is continuing “to gather information regarding the conduct of these students and work with law enforcement,” district spokeswoman Adriana Angulo said.

“We remain focused on educating students on all aspects of life’s challenges and are committed to holding students accountable, educating them on the consequences of their choices, and the impact these actions have on our schools and community at large,” she said.

Hateful symbols and actions should never be normalized, said Rabbi Peter Levi, regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Orange County/Long Beach chapter.

“The bottom line is that swastikas and Nazi salutes are never funny,” he said. “And when such actions are normalized as jokes, hate and bigotry become normalized. And we open the door for escalating acts of bias bigotry and bullying.”

Anti-Semitism has been on the rise nationwide.

The Anti-Defamation League documented a 58 percent increase in anti-Semitic hate incidents including hate crimes from 2016 to 2017, adding that a significant number of anti-Semitic incidents are documented on school campuses.

The ADL noted a spike after the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally in August 2017 when white nationalists marched on the University of Virginia’s campus holding tiki torches chanting: “Jews will not replace us.”

The nation was shaken by the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh in October when a gunman barged into the place of worship on Sabbath morning and shot and killed 11 people as he shouted out anti-Semitic slurs.

The Pittsburgh shooting was followed by several vandalism incidents involving swastikas nationwide, including at the Congregation Beth Jacob in Irvine where a vandal scrawled “(Expletive) Jews” on a front wall.

The students’ photo is a reminder of “how mainstreamed the swastika and the Hitler salute have become,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino.

“This is the kind of image I’m used to seeing when I’m looking at gatherings of violent skinheads, not high school students in one of the most acclaimed school districts in the country,” he said. “This should be a teachable moment.”

There is “nothing accidental” about the photo, Levin said.

“This is not an accidental or impulsive expression of bigotry,” he said. “This was premeditated based on the group of people, the Hitler salute and the carefully arranged cups. These folks knew there was a chance this image could get out. But, there is obviously no compunction whatsoever.”

The incident elicited a response from Rep. Katie Porter, D-Irvine, who said “the use of such a harmful symbol, which represents the genocide of the Jewish people, is an act of aggression and hate that has no place in our vibrant, diverse and welcoming community.“

“I call on local parents and community leaders to redouble our efforts to educate these young people about the oppression of, and violence against, Jewish people worldwide, and ensure that acts like these never happen again,” she said.

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OC Human Relations’ Response To This Incident:

  • At OC Human Relations we believe that all people deserve to live free of violence and discrimination and that every student deserves a safe place to learn.
  • Anti-Semitic and bigoted symbols/gestures like these must be taken seriously. History tells us that dismissing or explaining these things away can normalize them and lead to more serious offenses. We must address these things immediately and be clear that they do not represent the values we seek to uphold in our county.
  • We hope our communities come out to show their support for a safe and inclusive community where all people are welcomed.We can show and model that bias attitudes and behaviors are not part of our community’s values by speaking out, creating alternative narratives about the immense value of our differences and finding – as we try to at OC Human Relations – teachable moments that bring the offending party back into the circle/community/group because we know that isolation is not effective in the fight against hate. 
  • We are committed to bringing diverse people together to foster mutual understanding and have reached out to offer our support to the schools/district involved.
  • “Hate is easy, but love takes courage.” Let these words guide all of us who are affected by this and are working to address it.