The Minnetonka school district is hoping to transform an "outrageous act" into a teachable moment after an image depicting two high school students doing a Nazi salute and clutching a sign with references to Adolf Hitler created a firestorm on social media.
Widely condemned as anti-Semitic, the post prompted multiple notes home to parents from school administrators.
"While I do not know whether it was an intentionally hateful message or was created out of ignorance, be assured the students will be disciplined for their actions," Superintendent Dennis Peterson wrote in an e-mail Friday denouncing the post.
"The larger issue is that we, as a community, must do an even better job of educating students about Hitler and the Holocaust," he wrote. "While we do units on this in middle school, and we have had several Holocaust survivors speak at MHS, it has apparently not been enough to prevent yesterday's incident."
The e-mails did not state what the offensive message said but assured parents that it had been removed. Data privacy laws prevent school administrators from identifying the students involved or revealing any punishment they may face.
The photo, which was posted to a private Instagram account, shows a teenage girl and boy doing a Nazi salute as they clasp an apparent invitation to the school's annual Valentine's Day dance, called Sweethearts.
"Sweethearts would be a Hit(ler) w/you, and I could Nazi myself going w/anybody else. Be Mein? Yes or Nein," the poster reads.
The girl posted the photo with the caption: "Also I would like to state I am not anti-Semitic in any way, I hate all races equally."
If the message was meant as a joke, many weren't laughing.
"I'm steaming," said Wendy Rosenthal, whose daughter is a ninth-grader at Minnetonka High. "They can't claim they didn't know that this was offensive."
Rabbi Tzvi Kupfer, adviser to the school's Jewish Student Union (JSU), said he was appalled after being alerted to the post by his students Thursday night.
"They said they just don't feel safe going to school anymore," said Kupfer, adding that their sense of security had been cracked. "This is not something that should be joked about."
Minnetonka Principal Jeff Erickson reached out to JSU leaders and plans to meet with them next week to discuss their concerns. But Kupfer is calling for additional Holocaust education and has offered himself as a resource to the district.
Last spring, the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas organized a school assembly for students to hear from local Holocaust survivor Judith Meisel. After the incident, they offered to provide continued guidance.
"Somewhere, somehow there was a disconnect," Kupfer said. "Obviously it's not talked about enough. This kind of thing reminds us … we need to do more."
Jewish groups have become increasingly alarmed about the lack of Holocaust knowledge among young adults. A 2018 New York Times survey found that two-thirds of American millennials do not know what Auschwitz was.
The student involved, who deleted her original account, issued an apology on a new, private Instagram page. "I apologize for my stupid mistake," she wrote in her bio. "There was no intent to offend anyone."
A longer post elaborated: "I also realize how awful it is to make light in anyway of the horrors of hitler and the holocaust. It was stupid on my part and I feel bad about it. I would take it back if I could. I hope you all understand and forgive me."