MERCER ISLAND, Wash. — Students and advocates are speaking out after images of Mercer Island High School students “engaged in inappropriate anti-Semitic conduct” were shared on social media.
One of the images, shared with KING 5 by several people, appears to show two students raising a Nazi salute. One mimes a mustache with his finger. Mercer Island district officials confirmed they were aware of the images, characterizing it as a "Nazi hand gesture."
Emma Lerner, a senior at MIHS, said some of her classmates made light of them.
“The kids were laughing and joking about the content of the photos,” she said.
“As a Jewish person coming from a Jewish family, I grew up hearing about the Holocaust, and hearing about these symbols and what they mean and the weight behind them,” she said. “So to me, they’re not a joking matter.”
District officials believe it's not just photos, but also video involved. Superintendent Donna Colosky and principal Vicki Puckett sent a letter to parents, noting that the district began an investigation immediately.
“From that investigation, it appears that the images were not created with malicious intent toward others,” they wrote. “Still, these images are highly offensive and hurtful.”
They said the images are not consistent with district values, and have negatively impacted the school and community. They also called on people to join them in condemning acts of hate.
“MIHS will work directly with the students and families involved to address this misconduct, ensure accountability, and support the healing of our school community,” the administrators wrote.
The district did not detail what discipline the students might face. They believe the images were created off-campus, and away from any district-sanctioned events.
Miri Cypers, executive director for the Anti-Defamation League Pacific Northwest, said a number of parents contacted the group Monday night.
“It was painful, it was disturbing,” she said of the posts. “It hit close to home and I think we’re in a climate right now where Jewish students and all students are really on edge, and very sensitive to these really troubling videos, remarks and incidents.”
“I think in this particular instance the measure of the school or institution or community is not whether these things happen, but it’s how they respond,” she said.
Cypers said an ADL representative was on campus Tuesday gathering more information, and meeting with parents and administrators.
She said this illustrates why anti-bias training provided by the ADL is so important.
“I think if anything this deeply shocking incident illustrates the need to continue and grow our work,” she said.
She also pointed to the ADL’s Center on Extremism, which updated its map tracking extremist and anti-Semitic incidents this week. She said their data shows a 182 percent rise in incidents of white supremacy nationwide through 2018 – and the group cataloged 44 incidents in Washington state. These range from rallies to flyers distributed.
Lerner said she wants people to understand the gravity of their actions.
“I think that they don’t understand the weight of it, and they don’t understand that 11 million people died behind this regime,” she said. “I remember in middle school and high school opening textbooks and finding swastikas in there that people had doodled – because it’s a joke to a lot of people.”
“I think students should understand there are consequences to these actions, and they should have to face consequences,” she said. “Otherwise, it will happen again and continue happening.”
"We have worked very hard to help educate our students on matters of cultural awareness, equity, and inclusion," Colosky and Puckett wrote. "Sadly, this situation highlights that we - as both a school, District and Island community - must continue to focus on this work."
They also noted students with concerns can get in touch with resources at school.