CUMBERLAND, Maine — Maybe the photo was staged and posted on the Internet without any thought.
But its effect has been thought-provoking.
The image of two members of the Greely High School girls’ basketball team giving a “Heil Hitler” salute while a third sits cross-legged on the floor flashing a peace sign resulted in disciplinary action this week against the players.
And it has added fuel to an effort to educate students about biased and offensive behavior.
Greely High School Principal Dan McKeown said it is believed the picture was posted on Facebook. It was mailed, along with a litany of vulgar Twitter posts by players dating back several months, on Jan. 28 to school administrators, according to an anonymous letter sent to The Forecaster.
“This letter is to advise you that a situation exists in your school and sports program which brings discredit to your community,” the letter said, noting that it appeared that members of the team had posted “inappropriate material” on Twitter and Facebook, and that it “has also been noted that there is also a considerable amount of talk around Greely High School that is very similar to the content posted on these websites.
“Hallway, classroom and lunchroom conversations frequently include demeaning or abusive comments against certain students or adults as well as an excessive amount of foul language,” the letter added. It claimed that “Greely, like several other schools, has gained a reputation as a school that looks the other way rather than deal with ugly issues. The feeling is that sports are more important than the students and the community, so many indiscretions are simply swept aside. It seems that as long as nobody is physically hurt there is no problem.”
Some of the Twitter posts, sometimes including vulgarities, refer to one of the players as “Hitler,” as noted in a Feb. 4 letter to parents of the team members, sent by McKeone and Athletic Director David Shapiro.
“We have also learned that the team was present when a picture was taken of two team members giving the ‘Heil Hitler’ sign,” the administrators’ letter stated. “We take actions such as this, whether they are done in ignorance or with hate, to be a poor reflection on us as individuals and on our greater community. They are simply unacceptable.”
The administrators also said that in their investigation “we have also learned of other inappropriate and biased language used by some members of the team. These events, while disturbing, also provide us with an opportunity to teach our children about tolerance and respect.”
The sampling of tweets shared in the anonymous letter included posts such as “So Jewish to have prac on Christmas Eve day,” and “Just so the whole world knows … I AM in a math class with someone who has special needs … but he’s a junior so that makes up for it.”
While McKeown confirmed Thursday, Feb. 7, that disciplinary action was taken against some players, he declined to specify what kind of action, and against how many girls.
Any time inappropriate conduct “comes to our attention, we intervene, and our teachers do the same,” he said. “A lot of work has been done in [the] schools the last couple of years around the bullying and harassment piece, and that’s been a good education for staff and students.”
Emily Chaleff, executive director of the Jewish Community Alliance of Southern Maine, said in a Feb. 7 email that the Portland-based organization “is deeply disturbed by allegations that … several Greely High School students have been involved in a campaign of bias and offensive speech on Facebook and Twitter.”
She added that “Maine is not a place for intolerance, and all communities need to ensure that we are educating our children on atrocities of the past and present, so they do not repeat themselves.”
Jeff Porter, co-chairman of the SAD 51 Board of Directors, called the matter “a totally unfortunate circumstance.” He said “the school has done a very good job of talking about the issues, and talking to the individuals involved, and things are being handled appropriately internally.”
He added that “these are good kids who made a mistake.”
With social media playing a big part in the matter, Porter noted that “it’s incumbent on everybody these days to look at how [it] captures what individuals do or say.”
A few decades ago, inappropriate comments were relayed over the phone or in person, but now the Internet can spread those statements, or potentially offending pictures, like wildfire, with wide-ranging and long-haunting results.
“Facebook and other social media outlets have the ability to encapsulate and capture that information for posterity’s sake,” Porter said. “It’s certainly a discussion that needs to occur.”
“Social media is growing quickly, and schools are challenged to keep up with that,” McKeown said.
SAD 51 Superintendent Robert Hasson said he was disturbed and disappointed when he heard the news about the basketball team members, and “concerned that those types of activities had gone on.”
Two months ago, two juveniles faced criminal charges for allegedly painting graffiti and anti-Semitic symbols on Greely Middle School and some surrounding homes.
Hasson said the two incidents were not linked, and he called both “unacceptable,” saying they had been “responded to in an appropriate manner with students,” and that they “very much” do not represent the SAD 51 community, which he said has had a history of tolerance.
“These [incidents] are very disturbing and very serious,” Hasson said. “And we are working towards educating even more strongly the issue of tolerance and rejecting anything that appears hateful.”
Spreading the word
Part of that education comes from work with civil rights teams at Greely High and Middle schools, as well as at the fourth- and fifth-grade North Yarmouth Memorial School.
Brandon Baldwin, schools/curriculum coordinator with the Civil Rights Team Project of the Maine attorney general office, has been invited by the SAD 51 teams to visit the district next month.
“The benefit of the teams is that you have an organization in place to address issues of bias,” Baldwin said. “Oftentimes in our schools, we don’t address the bias component of many of the behaviors that are common [there].”
The attorney general’s website describes several reasons why schools should have civil rights teams. Among them are creating chances for discussion about key issues of bias in school communities, as well as heightening awareness and use of existing policies that protect students from harassment that is based on color, race, ancestry or national origin, religion, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation and gender.
The teams spread education, awareness and encouragement “so that everyone in the school better understands the harmful nature of bias and bias behaviors,” Baldwin said.
Greely High’s civil rights team, formed last year, has invited Baldwin to do a presentation during its “Be Yourself” week-long event next month. That event is one of the team’s many efforts to get the word out.
“High schools are oftentimes a place of conformity; nonetheless, we’re all individuals here and need to be respected for that,” said Peter Scott, a social worker at Greely High who is co-adviser of the school’s civil rights team, noting the importance of creating an environment that is accepting of all the different kinds of students in the school community.
The civil rights team’s purpose, Scott said, is “to really give students who want to get that message of tolerance out … a voice and a platform to do projects that can get their peers thinking. … Kids have a choice as to whether they’re going to accept that message and really take it to heart … or whether they disregard that message, and choose something else.”
And the education continues.
“A frequent response that I get from some schools in the state is, you want to open up conversations and address issues that are related to bias, and people say, ‘well, we don’t have those issues here,'” Baldwin said. “And that’s not true. Those issues exist in every single school in the state. Bias exists in all of us, and as a result of that, it’s going to pop up through our behaviors. And it’s important that we acknowledge that it exists, and that we’re doing something about it.”