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Orange County, Calif., School District Responds To Students' Offensive Social Media


Now we go to Orange County, Calif., where school district officials are pledging swift action in response to offensive social media posts. Images show high school students drinking at a party, making racist gestures, including Heil Hitler salutes. Last night, the Newport Mesa School Board created a task force. One of its missions is to develop broader Holocaust and anti-hate curriculum in classrooms. NPR's Kirk Siegler reports.

KIRK SIEGLER, BYLINE: It's not yet known what disciplinary or legal action the students could face after a viral post showing a drinking game where cups were arranged into a swastika.


UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: There were at least three investigations into the weekend hate incident.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Photos show students playing beer pong with cups set up like a swastika, saluting Hitler, along with captions like, German engineering.

SIEGLER: That party, a week and a half ago now, was met with condemnation in the affluent coastal city of Newport Beach.


KATHY SCOTT: OK. Good evening.

SIEGLER: At this crowded forum at Corona del Mar High School, Principal Kathy Scott insisted acts of hate of any kind, even if joking, will not be tolerated.


SCOTT: We can use this past event as a teachable opportunity to do more to help our students learn how to make right decisions, learn what...

SIEGLER: Speaker after speaker was met with a standing ovation.


SIEGLER: And a chilling hush went over the room when several Holocaust survivors in the audience were asked to stand. There are some 300 Holocaust survivors living in Orange County. Here's Rabbi Gersh Zylberman of Temple Bat Yahm in Newport Beach.


GERSH ZYLBERMAN: When my grandmother was 14, her life changed. She didn't get to go to a nice high school by the beach. Instead, she was transported to a slave labor camp.

SIEGLER: The district's new task force will promote inclusively on campuses and will strengthen curriculum about the Holocaust and white supremacist extremism. For Brette Steele, the fallout from the swastikas shows that curriculum needs to be stronger and brought into the present. She worked in counterterrorism for the departments of Justice and Homeland Security.

BRETTE STEELE: I think the challenge today comes with not just treating the topics historically but also looking at how the themes continue to the present day - not just looking at them as history that's over and done with.

SIEGLER: Steele has been tracking a sharp rise in reported incidents of white supremacist recruiting events and neo-Nazi propaganda showing up in K-12 schools here and around the country.

Back at the Corona del Mar forum, Jewish students said they're seeing more swastikas carved into desks and bathroom stalls, as well as open harassment from other students. Junior Solomon Soneshine wasn't surprised to see the social media post.


SOLOMON SONESHINE: I believe every student in the photo was normalized to joking about the Jewish culture. It's what brought them to think that the swastika and Heil position were not as abhorrent as many of us believe them to be.

SIEGLER: That normalization of anti-Semitism is occurring as Orange County's demographics have been shifting dramatically. Chapman University sociologist Pete Simi says this is creating an opening for recruitment by white supremacist groups.

PETE SIMI: They see certain kinds of fears and anxieties that are becoming more prominent within society as an opportunity for them to kind of use and manipulate to spread their message.

SIEGLER: Simi applauds the district's open and - so far - proactive response. He says this coming out of anti-Semitism and other hate is often not taken seriously enough by people in charge.

SIMI: You see it here in Orange County, but you see it nationwide, as well. It's a kind of a collective amnesia or unwillingness to admit the presence of this type of hate that's played a large role in our nation's history and continues to play a large role.

SIEGLER: But Simi cautions against bringing down the hammer of discipline on the students at the recent party. It's been pointed out we don't know yet if they were swayed by racist groups or if it was some sort of misinformed youth rebellion. And despite all the hand-wringing at public forums and the national spotlight being on the schools, the problems continue to surface. Just last weekend, another high school here reported being vandalized with Nazi posters.

Kirk Siegler, NPR News, Newport Beach, Calif.

(SOUNDBITE OF PHIL FRANCE'S "THE SWIMMER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.