More than 500 students, parents and community members gathered at Newport Harbor High School Monday night where close to 20 panelists condemned anti-Semitism after photos emerged of several of the school’s students performing the Hitler salute around red cups arranged as a swastika.
Dozens gathered outside the school before the evening meeting to discuss the viral photos as two police cruisers and several news vans waited. Inside, some students discussed the high school’s ongoing culture of hostility toward minorities.
“Every day I pee next to swastikas drawn in the bathroom. I write on desks emblazoned with swastikas in the classrooms. It’s everywhere,” said Max Drakeford, a Newport Harbor High School student whose grandmother, a Holocaust survivor, was also at the event.
Drakeford said he grew up hearing stories of the Holocaust from his grandmother, which amplified his visceral reaction to the photo.
“When I saw the photos my heart was pumping. I was sweating. I was pacing around and shaking and I felt a genuine rage and sadness inside me. At first I was hell bent on getting these kids consequences, but as I reflected more I realized we can use this for something bigger than just punishing them,” Drakeford said to the Coast Report. “It can be the catalyst for actual socio-cultural change.”
The high school’s administrators said they hope to use the incident to educate students.
“We are committed together to drive change, with a commitment to make tomorrow better than today. We believe that there is no place for hate,” Newport Harbor High School principal Sean Boulton said on stage.
Panelists also included the mayors of Newport Beach and Costa Mesa, members of the Newport-Mesa school board, its superintendent, principals from Costa Mesa and Newport Beach high schools, Newport Harbor High School ASB members, two rabbis, a representative for the Orange County Human Relations Commission and the school resource officer for Newport Harbor high.
Two Holocaust survivors who attended were given standing ovations and one of the rabbis evoked audible crying in the room when he spoke.
According to the Jewish Federation and Family Services in Orange County, there are at least 300 Holocaust survivors living in Orange County.
Some students defended the actions of those in the photo in online chats, saying the episode was a joke and shouldn’t be taken so seriously.
Harley Rouda, California’s 48th district representative, condemned the incident in an email to his constituents.
“It doesn’t matter whether or not they thought it was funny. When we joke about Nazism, its history loses meaning — and we cannot forget that history,” Rouda said in a statement. “These students must learn that hate has consequences, and their parents and our school district must redouble their efforts to teach them.”
The school did not discuss what disciplinary steps would be taken but a verbal commitment was made to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.
Students reported that some teachers dedicated 20 minutes at the start of class on Monday to discuss the incident. Other schools are also weighing in on the matter. The principal of Corona del Mar High School said it will also host an emergency meeting Thursday.
In interviews with the Coast Report, students said racism at NHHS isn’t a new phenomenon. Like Drakeford, many recalled seeing swastikas and racial slurs drawn or carved onto surfaces in bathrooms, classrooms and handball courts.
“A few of the kids that were at the party were not remorseful. They continued to make more Jewish jokes. I heard one apology and a lot of excuses,” Caitlin McDermott, a 16-year-old sophomore at Newport Harbor High School told the Coast Report.
Some of the students involved in the incident posted statements regarding what had occurred on various media platforms.
One Newport Harbor student who allegedly took one of the photos at the party and posted it to social media has since made a public apology online.
“I’m sorry I took the photo, and very sorry that I chose to post it on Snapchat. I had the opportunity to step up and voice that what was going on was not right, I also had the choice to leave but I did not, and for that I am so very sorry,” the student said in her post via Snapchat.
The Associated Student Body of Newport Harbor High School also took to media platforms to release a statement on their Instagram page condemning anti-Semitism and calling for further education on the impact of the student’s actions.
Jack Rogers, a student at Newport Harbor and an ASB member, told the Coast Report that the greater issue was to address it as a wake-up call, not only to the youth but the greater community too. Rogers said a greater cultural change will need to happen to promote compassion in everybody’s lives.
Susan Chingay, a 19-year-old psychology major at Orange Coast College and 2017 Newport Harbor graduate, recalled a normalcy of casual racism at the school in the midst of the 2016 presidential election.
“So because of that (Trump getting elected), we had a lot of racial slurs written on campus where predominantly Hispanic people would hang out. They would write ‘wetbacks’ or ‘go back home,’” Chingay told the Coast Report.
According to Chingay, she introduced the first ever ethnic club at Newport Harbor in 2016-2017 called Latinos Unidos.
She said some students complained about feeling threatened by the club being formed, saying it was racist and non-inclusive. However, Chingay said the club accepted all people to join, not just Hispanic students.
Students at the event were hopeful for real change to come from the incident, citing a lack of outcry in previous, smaller instances.
Drakeford said the incident caused the Jewish population of the school to rally together.
Newport Harbor principal Boulton said the district will continue to listen and mediate through student and parent groups.
— David Sonnenberg, Nick Loveland and Lila Shakti contributed to this report.
Students and community members speak out about the controversy at Newport Harbor High School
"In my history class whenever that kind of stuff was brought up kind of surreptitiously people would do the ‘heil Hitler,” in the back of the classroom when they think no one’s looking. I would just glance and be disappointed, but I can’t start screaming in the middle of a lecture so I would stay silent. This was an amazing opportunity to speak out against all of that. It was all boiling under the surface and this just erupted all of it." — Gina Leaman, student
"What some people think is funny seriously hurts other people." — Jack Rogers, student
"It’s not a problem that Newport has now, it goes years and years back." — Susan Chingay, OCC student and Newport Harbor graduate
"Are all Jewish students going to have to get used to this kind of anti-Semitism and hate in the community or is this gonna change?" — Ben Kwong, student
"I’m not Jewish myself but I have multiple friends who are. Some of them were on stage with me tonight and I believe their stories 100 percent." — Jack Rogers, student
"We remain focused on educating students on all aspects of life’s challenges and are committed to holding students accountable, educating them on the consequences of their choices, and the impact these actions have on our schools and community at large." — Frederick Navarro, superintendent of Newport-Mesa Unified School District in an email statement sent to parents
"It means so much to have your friend or peers say, ‘that’s not right.’ That’s what we need to have more of." — Gina Leaman, student
"I don’t want Harbor to be seen as a racist school. Those students don’t represent us." — Caitlin McDermott, student