School administrators in Alameda are once again facing complaints about expressions of antisemitism and racism — this time, in social media posts showing students making Nazi salutes, using the N-word and referencing Hitler.
Mohan Vemulapalli, the parent of a freshman at Alameda High School who has Jewish family, said his child was distraught showing him the images, which were screen-grabbed and circulated widely on Instagram and Twitter.
The photos show a group of white students jutting their arms out in salutes, using the N-word and giving the thumbs-down next to a yard sign that says “We believe Black lives matter.”
In one photo, a teenager wearing Apple earbuds and a gray sweatshirt extends his arm next to the words “hitler could like… get it.”
“Someone please explain to me when anti-semitism became a joke,” wrote one of the students who shared the screenshots. “Glorifying and joking about something that was a traumatic and horrific thing that killed millions of people is absolutely disgusting.”
Vemulapalli said he was taken aback when his child, who is non-white, showed him the posts last week. “Horrified but not surprised,” was how he put it.
“This is a small incident in a larger scenario developing over a few years,” he said, tracing it to the political rise of Donald Trump.
He pointed to racist graffiti found at Edison Elementary around the 2016 presidential election, and pro-Hitler vandalism discovered there the following year. Though strongly Democratic-leaning, Alameda is not as blue as some surrounding Bay Area counties. Roughly 15 percent of residents supported Trump in 2020, according to a New York Times election map.
Its namesake public high school is relatively high-performing, with a 97 percent graduation rate. Demographically it is 30 percent white, 46 percent Asian and 17 percent Black or Hispanic, according to U.S. News and World Report.
Four years ago, AHS was rocked by a controversy that garnered local press coverage and intervention from civil rights groups after Jewish freshman Natasha Waldorf was harassed with antisemitic texts. An anonymous person, later revealed to be a fellow student, called her a “big-nosed k***” and made light of the Holocaust with a cartoon image of a Nazi, next to the words “Mr. Ethnic Cleansing.” The words “JEWS ARE EVIL” were scrawled on a desk next to a swastika and a bag of money.
The students involved were made to apologize to Waldorf, though the school district did not release information on any disciplinary action, citing privacy.
The Alameda Unified School District instituted staff anti-bias training in response, led by the Anti-Defamation League, and launched a “bias-related incident” tracking tool called BRIT to “gather more accurate data” on discrimination and harassment incidents, according to the school district website.
District spokesperson Susan E. Davis told J. in an email that a “comprehensive investigation” was underway into the last week’s incident, though she added that, again, any disciplinary action would remain confidential. “Generally, however, those actions may include discipline,” the email, prepared with the help of counsel, read.
In a letter to parents on April 2, principal Robert Ithurburn said the school had received more than 30 emails from students complaining about the offensive social media posts.
Ithurburn condemned the posts, saying they represented “incidences of racism and hate” and adding that he hoped they did not reflect the beliefs of the students who shared them.
“I cannot stress enough that this should not and cannot happen and when students do it they are either espousing a statement of hate or putting themselves into a position to be assumed to be,” Ithurburn wrote. “It is true that young people do things that they regret and that they should have an opportunity to learn from their mistakes.”
Vemulapalli said that in his view, the school’s response thus far has been inadequate.
In a separate email, Ithurburn said the school would be making counselors and psychologists available to “provide students with a safe space to process and offer their thoughts and ideas on the matter.”
The school held an emotional Zoom session on Monday for students to air their grievances and to openly express how the posts harmed them. Vemulapalli, who was present with his child, said he found it to be a bit “touchy-feely.”
“It’s ‘support the victims,’ but ignore the problem,” Vemulapalli said. “The school is seeing this as an inappropriate expression of First Amendment rights. Not as radicalization.”
Elsewhere in the Bay Area, across California and across the country, teenagers mocking or making light of Nazi imagery and the Holocaust have on many occasions shocked parents, fellow students and civil rights groups.
In 2017, Piedmont High School convened an assembly after students made Nazi salutes in a hallway, and performed a dance routine during gym in the shape of a swastika. In 2019 students in Newport Beach went viral after setting up a beer pong table in the shape of a swastika, prompting Jewish students to feel threatened, according to reports.
Overt antisemitism parroting Nazi ideology has also been used to harass and bully individual Jewish students in the Bay Area, as it was against Waldorf.
At Redwood High School in Marin County last year, a Jewish student was peppered with Instagram messages calling Judaism “depraved” and saying Jews “practice cultural degeneracy.” The account, which was created by a fellow student, was called “students organized against semitism” and claimed to be compiling a list of the district’s Jews in a “Google doc.”
In Burlingame, a Jewish middle-schooler said that he was taunted during the 2017-2018 school year by people saying “Heil Hitler” in his presence and making off-color jokes. “People in the cafeteria, instead of saying his name, would say ‘hey Jew,” mom Julie Ellman told J. at the time. In 2019, antisemitic graffiti was found at Burlingame High School.
In an email Sunday, Alameda Unified School District Superintendent Pasquale Scuderi said the district would direct all “resources and support needed to complete a comprehensive investigation.” He described the social media posts as “images of fascism, hatred, and anti-Semitism.”
“As a community we affirm that we are with each other in solidarity and with those most impacted by the ignorance, destructive symbolism, and harmful expressions like the ones we are seeing in these photos,” Scuderi wrote. “Whatever the motives or intentions of those behind actions like these are, our attention must first and foremost go to those that are most impacted.”