Baraboo teachers Kari Nelson and Barry Flesch started by tacking posters to their classroom doors to show students they took their safety seriously and respected their diversity.
The message was simple: “No room for hate. This classroom. This school. This community. This state. This country. This world.”
After the posters spread at Baraboo High School, Nelson wanted the message to reach farther, bring in more people and make a “financial impact for good.”
“It starts here with us,” Nelson said. “We do what we can do to support all students in our room, and then we move that out into our hallways and our greater building and into our communities and so forth.”
Nelson, president of the Baraboo Education Association, and other members of the teachers union decided to sell T-shirts featuring the same message to raise money for the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland as a response to the photo of BHS students that went viral in November.
The image of about 50 boys, most with arms raised in an apparent Nazi salute, elicited blowback from across the world. One of the earliest criticisms came from the Auschwitz museum.
It is so hard to find words...— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) November 12, 2018
This is why every single day we work hard to educate. We need to explain what is the danger of hateful ideology rising. Auschwitz with its gas chambers was at the very end of the long process of normalizing and accommodating hatred. https://t.co/13AzZaMGJR
“It was sort of that shocking first one that we saw from ‘Oh my gosh, the Auschwitz museum in Poland is responding to this. Wow, we’ve gotta rethink everything,’” Nelson said. “That’s really like the sky falling in on you, I think, when the Auschwitz museum calls out your community.”
The institution also was one of the first to offer guidance and help to the Baraboo district, she noted, by directing the district via Twitter to its online educational resources.
After district leaders indicated that students in the photo would not face discipline due to their free-speech rights, the museum tweeted, “Let’s only hope that the protection of freedom of speech will not become a too easy excuse for parents, teachers, community and educators to do nothing about this painful public expression of hate speech in the form of the Nazi salute.”
It followed up with another message urging teachers and parents to instill children with tolerance and understanding.
Let's only hope that the protection of freedom of speech will not become a too easy excuse for parents, teachers, community and educators to do nothing about this painful public expression of hate speech in the form of the Nazi salute.— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) November 24, 2018
"We must all teach our children #tolerance and #understanding, both - at home and in school. For tolerance cannot be assumed… it must be taught. We all must make it clear that hate is never right and love is never wrong!" (Roman Kent, #Auschwitz survivor) https://t.co/jxdv5LHS5G— Auschwitz Memorial (@AuschwitzMuseum) November 12, 2018
Nelson took that to heart. She said the roughly 12 district employees who comprise the teachers union executive board voted to send a donation to the museum because it’s well-known and does “important work” keeping the memory of the Holocaust and World War II alive.
During the last two weeks of November, 180 staff members throughout the district bought T-shirts in a variety of colors — meant as another expression of diversity. The teachers group matched the first $500 in profits, raising a total of $2,100.
Golden Needle Embroidery in North Freedom printed the 180 shirts in about five days, allowing the association to distribute them in time for staff members to wear them on Pearl Harbor Day on Dec. 7. Nelson said she’s grateful to Golden Needle for giving the union a discount on the shirts because of the cause.
Wearing the shirts on Pearl Harbor Day was “pretty special” for faculty and others with family who fought in WWII, Nelson said. She noted the fundraiser was a small way for teachers to contribute to the efforts responding to the controversy.
“I think, as a union, we’re just really supportive of all the efforts that the … community, the county leadership, the city leadership, the district leadership is doing to try to — to try to make all of this right,” Nelson said. “We just hope this is another piece of the puzzle.”
Several community members and students have expressed interest in buying their own shirts, so Nelson is considering another sale in the coming months that would be open to the wider community.
As the atmosphere at the high school has calmed down with time, Nelson said teachers will continue to reflect on the situation from last semester. She also expects to continue talking about issues of social justice within the labor organization, possibly tapping into resources on diversity, equity and social justice offered by the Wisconsin Education Association Council.
“We’re always going to be standing on the side … of doing what’s right for all of our kids,” Nelson said.