Baraboo caught international attention this fall after a photo taken in May before the junior prom sparked outrage online, elicited responses from institutions such as the Auschwitz Memorial Museum in Poland and prompted an investigation by the school district and police.
Taken on the Sauk County Courthouse steps, the photo includes about 50 Baraboo High School boys from the class of 2019, many of whom are holding their arms outstretched in what appears to be a Nazi salute. Baraboo photographer Peter Gust, a parent of one of the boys, said he had asked the students to wave goodbye to the camera and didn’t look through the photos closely before uploading the whole batch to his public website.
Six months later, the photo was posted by the anonymous Twitter account @GoBaraboo with a racially charged comment and the hashtag #barabooproud. It went viral Nov. 11. Both current and former Baraboo students and residents have spoken out about their experiences with bullying or intolerance.
At least two boys pictured in the photo not taking part in the gesture said they believe some of their peers intended to make the Nazi salute as a joke. Others merely imitated the rest, one said.
While little information from the investigation has been shared with the public, community leaders quickly organized a series of meetings to address the controversy.
School district and city employees, faith leaders and others set up a series of community meetings, starting Nov. 19 with Baraboo Gathers, where more than 200 people congregated at the high school to listen to speakers including Baraboo Mayor Mike Palm, District Administrator Lori Mueller and Madison Rabbi Laurie Zimmerman.
At the second meeting Nov. 29, Baraboo Talks, facilitators led participants in discussions about what actions could be taken to make the community more welcoming for all people and educate both students and adults on social justice issues. A community action plan was developed from the suggestions and shared Dec. 17 at Baraboo Acts: Serve2Unite. Guest speakers at the third meeting shared their experiences overcoming hatred and tragedy to work toward tolerance.
Three levels of local government — the Baraboo School Board, mayor and Sauk County Board — showed support for community efforts by passing resolutions or signing a proclamation “against hate.”
Mueller said free-speech rights prevented the district from disciplining anyone involved with the photo. Instead, she said educators would focus on helping the students with “restorative justice,” which requires wrongdoers to seek to correct their behavior and make amends.
Student safety rose to the forefront as rumors of a threat of school violence circulated on social media in November, though local police reported it was unsubstantiated. Since the photo surfaced, city and school staff have been subject to threats from across the country, according to Baraboo Police Chief Mark Schauf.
An anti-Semitic video claimed to be a parody of events surrounding the photo but included a warning for viewers to stay home the day assemblies were planned at Baraboo High School featuring guest speakers calling for tolerance. The threat prompted local police to call state and federal authorities. The Thunderbird Day of Peace occurred Dec. 18 without any related violence.
Local businesses also have been affected by the issue: Neat-O’s Bake Shoppe was fictitiously linked to the video — without the owners’ knowledge or consent — and experienced a drop in sales before customers rallied in response.