A group of high school students who appear to be giving a Nazi salute in a prom photo snapped earlier this year reportedly won't face any punishment from school officials. In a letter obtained by The Wisconsin State Journal, Baraboo School District Administrator Lori Mueller said free speech rights guaranteed by the First Amendment protected the students from disciplinary action.
"We cannot know the intentions in the hearts of those who were involved," Mueller wrote in a letter sent to parents, per The Wisconsin State Journal. "Moreover, because of students' First Amendment rights, the district is not in a position to punish the students for their actions."
A photo featuring dozens of high school students, most of whom have their right arm raised and stretched straight out before them in a gesture many have said is reminiscent of a Nazi salute, went viral earlier this month after being posted on Twitter. Although the initial tweet sharing the photo was deleted, Twitter user Carly Sidey tweeted a screenshot of the initial tweet in an attempt to put the photo — and the behavior — on Baraboo School District's radar.
At the time, Mueller said the photo was "not reflective of the [district's] educational values and beliefs" in a brief statement tweeted on Nov. 12. "The District will pursue any and all available and appropriate actions, including legal, to address" the issue, she added.
In her letter updating parents on the situation, Mueller reportedly said "some key details" remained unclear despite part of in investigation involving the school, parents, and local law enforcement authorities having been completed. According to The Wisconsin State Journal, the school is still working to uncover what happened just prior to the photo and after it was taken.
While the photographer responsible for snapping the photograph has said the students were waving to their parents, at least one of the students in the picture has reportedly disputed that claim, Newsweek has reported. That student reportedly told journalist Jules Suzdaltsev that he and his fellow students were asked to make the gesture by the photographer.
"I clearly am uncomfortable with what was happening," Suzdaltsev reported the student, who identified himself as the boy standing on the far right in the back row of the photo while frowning and clearly holding both of his arms down at his side, said. "The photographer took the photos telling us to make the sign, [but] I knew what my morals were and it was not to salute something I firmly didn't believe in."
In light of the photograph, some have urged the school district to provide students with anti-bias training. "Students have First Amendment rights, but it is appalling that these students appear to have used theirs in a way that is completely shocking and reprehensible," the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin said in a statement. The organization went on to say it was "critical for schools to foster an environment that is safe, welcoming, and non-discriminatory for other students" and urged school officials to "bring in experts in anti-bias training to engage with students and faculty."
According to The Wisconsin State Journal, Baraboo School District is now working to assist students in mending the damage their behavior has brought to their communities and personal relationships. Mueller also reportedly told parents that the school district was currently planning ways to tackle issues like racism and hate with students in both the short and long term.