Nazi Salutes, Beer Cup Swastikas. How OC Schools Are Responding To Hate On Campus
The setting is a nondescript beige banquet room. You can hear an obscure old marching song from Nazi-era Germany playing over a speaker.
One member of the Pacifica High School water polo team stands at a lectern. Others from the school in Garden Grove are scattered among the rows of chairs. The boys are singing along, their right arms extended in the Nazi "Sieg Heil" salute. Some are laughing.
The disturbing scene was captured on video last November, but not released until last month. That's when The Daily Beast reported on and published the 8-second video clip. Like most Pacifica High School students, that was the first Lizzie Halbreich heard about her schoolmates' behavior.
"When I first saw it, I was like, 'oh, it's another school, doing another thing,'" said Halbreich, a 15-year-old Pacifica sophomore. "Then when I realized it was my school, I was like, 'Oh, that took a while. I knew this kind of stuff was happening for a while, so I wasn't surprised."
Before long, more videos surfaced: Pacifica students were shown on school grounds Nazi-saluting, singing and marching. One wore a Confederate flag.
Pacifica isn't the first Orange County high school to make headlines for hateful behavior — or the last. Earlier this month, a visiting football team and cheerleaders from San Diego were subjected to anti-black racist taunts during a football game at San Clemente High School. School officials acknowledged after an investigation that visiting students were subjected to racist slurs inside a bathroom and from the stands.
And last March, students from Newport Harbor High School at an off-campus party formed a swastika out of red plastic cups, threw up Nazi salutes, and shared photos on social media.
As these incidents keep occurring, some students, community members, even former and current faculty at schools like Pacifica say they are not surprised — hate on local campuses is not a new phenomenon. School officials, meanwhile, say they are taking steps to mitigate the problem, partnering with anti-bias organizations and seeking ways to better teach tolerance. But with hate content readily available online, there are challenges.
THE INITIAL RESPONSE
Pacifica High School officials say they first heard about the incident involving the water polo team in March and addressed it with the students shown in the video and their parents. But they didn't tell any other students or teachers at the school about it. The district hasn't revealed any details of how students were disciplined, citing federal student privacy laws.
Schools cannot provide details about an individual student's disciplinary action; however, they can broadly discuss discipline in general terms if the students are not identified.
After the story broke, the Garden Grove Unified School District put out a written statement acknowledging that Pacifica administrators "did not respond to the incident with the gravity it deserved."
District officials reopened an investigation into the Nazi salute video and announced partnerships with anti-bias educators like the Anti-Defamation League and the Simon Wiesenthal Center Museum of Tolerance. They also announced the formation of a task force focused on human relations.
At a public school board meeting, Pacifica principal Steve Osborne apologized and acknowledged school officials "did a disservice to the entire school community by limiting our action to the small group of students involved."
'THEY STILL THINK THIS IS ALL A JOKE'
Lizzie Halbreich, the Pacifica sophomore, believes there's something missing from school officials' response: the acknowledgement that this is part of an ongoing problem. As a Jewish girl who grew up in this community, she's heard boys at school make racist and anti-Semitic so-called "jokes" for years.
When she'd call them out, she said, other students would tell her to relax, to not take things so seriously. So she stayed silent, not reporting anything to administrators until one day in April, when she became genuinely worried for her safety.
"This was because in the morning, I heard two boys saying 'all Jews should die,'" said Halbreich, who noticed the boys said it directly within earshot of her, twice. "I ended up meeting with the principal [Steve Osborne] and informing him. He expressed numerous amount of times that he'd never seen or heard this kind of behavior at the school, which I found hard to believe, because I heard it almost every day."
Osborne and other school officials did not respond to requests for comment.
This was one month after administrators said they first learned of the Nazi salute video and addressed it with the students involved.
But the larger problem hasn't been solved, Halbreich said.
"I feel like they're doing baby steps now," she said. "I feel like they need to rip off the Band-Aid. I still hear kids. In fact, I heard some today, and they still think that this is all a joke."
Halbreich isn't happy for the media attention Pacifica High has seen, but she's glad the problem is at least out in the open now.
"We are nicknamed Hitler High, so people definitely don't have a good perception of us," she said. "While this type of humor and socializing has become normalized, it's not everyone. The vast majority of the school, they want to fix this."
THE NEED FOR EDUCATION
Rabbi Peter Levy is regional director for the Anti-Defamation League in Orange County. He says we can't dismiss hateful incidents among students as "kids being kids." Hateful words and symbols have real consequences.
"The Holocaust didn't start at the gates of Auschwitz," Levy said. "It started generations before that, with words, stereotypes, with belittling of people. When those get normalized, it has the potential to end in identity-based violence."
More than 16 percent of hate crimes reported in California over the past decade occurred in K-12 schools and college campuses, according to the California Department of Justice. The ADL says anti-Semitic incidents in schools nationwide have been on the rise, nearly doubling in both 2016 and 2017 from the previous years.
Levy says high school hate is just a reflection of the normalization of hate in broader culture, from political rhetoric to online message boards.
"Every seventh grader has a smartphone in their pocket," Levy said. "Twenty-four-seven access to the most hateful ideology and symbols at their fingertips, from the comfort of their parents' homes."
Rabbi Levy spoke during an all-school assembly at Pacifica High School on the first day of classes last month. A necessary step, he said, but not the way to really change campus climate.
"Having an assembly, bringing in a Holocaust survivor to talk to students, those are really important things to do when you're in the midst of a storm," Levy said. "It's like having an umbrella. But if you're bringing an umbrella to fight climate change, you've got the wrong tool."
Now he's working with Pacifica High School teachers and district administrators to develop long-term educational opportunities across the Garden Grove Unified School District.
"It's so important for those of us who are in the anti-hate business to really double-down in our K-12 schools, because no one's born a bigot," Levy said.
Pacifica High School teachers will visit the Museum of Tolerance in December, according to Museum director Liebe Geft. Museum officials also said the Garden Grove Unified School District has made plans to send every seventh-grader in the district there annually. School district officials, however, did not reply to requests for comment.
"Sadly, alarmingly, we are seeing 75 years after the fact that the need for such education is more urgent now than it's ever been before, which is very alarming," said Geft. "Clearly, there is something about human nature or the cycles of world events that necessitates these interventions on a daily basis, and we can never assume that this won't happen again."
TEACHERS AREN'T SURPRISED
Few Pacifica High School teachers contacted were willing to speak, but those who did told LAist they were unsurprised by the recently revealed Nazi salute videos.
In 2015, Pacifica High School was 39 percent white, 32 percent Hispanic and 26 percent Asian, according to federal education statistics. The Garden Grove Unified School District as a whole was 9 percent white.
"I think our school largely represents the country as a whole," said Mike Cadilli, who teaches P.E. and history at Pacifica High School. "We didn't always. I've been here for 20 years, and we used to be more Caucasian than we are now."
Cadilli said Pacifica students aren't ignorant of the Holocaust and World War II.
"We teach what Hitler did," Cadilli said. "They know what happened. Still they sang these German songs and they had a meeting. It's sickening, but I don't think it's surprising in the political climate we're in."
Cadilli said he has witnessed intolerance on Pacifica's campus, including anti-immigrant language from students. But he hasn't witnessed anything like this in his 20 years of teaching.
"I've never seen Nazi salutes," Cadilli said.
Others say they have witnessed a long history of anti-Semitism. Flo Martin taught German at Pacifica High School from 1980 to 2003. She speaks Bulgarian, German, English and French. Martin was born in Germany during World War II. Her family moved to Canada then California, as refugees.
"I became known as the person on campus to seek out by the students whenever there was any evidence of anti-Semitism activity," Martin said. "And I took photographs of a huge swastika emblazoned into the baseball field."
Martin says she snapped that photo in the late '90s. In the '80s and '90s, Orange County was a hotbed for skinheads and hate groups like White Aryan Resistance. Martin says several of her German students back then identified with that group.
"This has been ongoing at Pacifica High School ever since I started teaching there, so I was not surprised at all," she said.
Martin's retired, but she's still considered a campus resource. A few weeks back, she gave a workshop about hate to Pacifica teachers. She says administrators wanted to move on, but she wants to dig in.
"I want to see the wound opened," Martin said. "Because only through the bleeding of the wound will it heal."
LESSONS FROM NEWPORT HARBOR
Pacifica High School's response, still in its early days, looks a lot like the approach taken by Newport Harbor High School in response to a similar incident in March, when students arranged red plastic cups into the shape of a swastika, threw up Nazi salutes, and snapped selfies that they shared on social media.
Afterward, the nine students involved were introduced to Anne Frank's stepsister Eva Schloss, a Holocaust survivor.
"She specifically addressed how wrong that incident was, being a Holocaust survivor herself," said Sean Boulton, Newport Harbor High School principal. "That experience was very raw. I think that our restorative practices have given them the opportunity to see a broader perspective on the swastika, on the Nazi party, on anti-Semitism."
The Anti-Defamation League provided training for teachers and students. The Simon Wiesenthal Center chose Newport Harbor as a pilot school for its digital citizenship program, and welcomed students and teachers to tour the Museum of Tolerance in June.
"Hopefully these experiences will show them and start planting a seed in their minds about how wrong all this is," said Boulton, while touring the museum.
Boulton said he believes those involved have taken these experiences to heart. "I believe the families and the students have been introspective," Boulton said. "I believe they want to be part of the solution moving forward."
Six months after seeing the swastika party images on Snapchat, 16-year-old Newport Harbor junior Gina Leaman said she's seen some progress at her school.
"I think it's going relatively well," Leaman said. "I'm not going to say great, because I don't think that's true. I think the people who have always been on the sidelines have come out of the woodwork to support kindness and tolerance. But the people who have been bigoted, they're still bigoted, I think."
Leaman, who is Jewish, said most of the kids from the party still go to her school. She thinks that's good. They can see the faces of students they've hurt in the hallways, she said, and be held accountable if they mess up again.
Leaman was part of that museum trip with her principal. She did a training with the ADL this summer, and even helped initiate a campus tolerance club, with the help of a movement called BlazeItForward. The initiative was created by the parents of Blaze Bernstein, a gay, Jewish teenager who was murdered in Orange County last year by a former classmate with ties to a Neo-nazi terrorist network.
"My goal is making kids feel comfortable to call bigotry out," Leaman said. "The influence of peer judgement is so overwhelming in high school. So we want to make people feel comfortable standing up to intolerance, and not just laughing it off. We're getting there. We're just getting started, though."
Aaron Schrank covers religion, international affairs and the Southern California diaspora under a grant from the Luce Foundation.
5:09 p.m: The top of this article was lightly edited.
This article was originally published at 12:25 p.m.