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More than 5,000 sign petition calling for suspension of Baraboo students seen in controversial photo

BARABOO -- More than 5,000 people have signed a petition calling for the suspension of the Baraboo High School students seen in a photo performing apparent Nazi salutes.

The petition was created by Care 2, and reads, in part: "Apparently, the photographer thought it would be funny to ask the boys to do this and virtually every kid in the photo complied. It's not funny to use a symbol that has connected legions of violent hate criminals and genocidal leaders like Hitler. Clearly, the school is fostering an environment where it's safe to be racist. They are not too young to know better, and it's the adults around them who failed to ingrain any moral compass in any of them, save the one boy in the top right corner.”

The photo has sparked an investigation by police and the school district, along with criticism from a Holocaust memorial group.

The image of students in the Baraboo School District originally was posted on the @GoBaraboo parody account with the caption, "We even got the black kid to throw it up."

The picture, which was tagged #Barabooproud, has since been taken down, and police and school officials now promise to look into it further.

The photo, in which students appear to "be making extremely inappropriate gestures," dates to last spring and was not taken on school property or at a school-sponsored event, District Superintendent Lori Mueller said Monday in a statement.

The district is "extremely troubled by the image," which shows the teens attired for prom, and is working with local authorities to investigate how and why the photo was taken, Mueller said in a letter sent Monday afternoon to parents.

"The school district is investigating this situation and is working with parents, staff and local authorities," Mueller said in the statement. "If the gesture is what it appears to be, the district will pursue any and all available and appropriate actions, including legal, to address the issue."

"Clearly, we have a lot of work to do to ensure that our schools remain positive and safe environments for all students, staff and community," she added in the letter.

Baraboo police tweeted that they are assisting the district's investigation since being made aware of a "controversial photo of a group of high school students."

About 40 miles northwest of Madison, the Baraboo School District had just more than 3,000 students, with a 17.6 percent minority population, in the 2015-16 school year, its most recent available statistics show.

Not everyone in the photo is participating in the gesture. Jordan Blue, a student in the top right of the image whose hands are not raised, told CNN the photo was taken as students gathered at a local courthouse for professional prom photos.

"The photographer said to raise your hand, but he didn't say a specific way, and my peers should not have raised it in the specific way that was the offensive way and hurtful way," Blue said.

Blue said the gesture made him uncomfortable and scared.

"It was a scary moment, and it was very shocking and upsetting, and it was a huge misrepresentation of the school district and the community of Baraboo," he said.

The parent who took the photo said Tuesday he was simply asking the teens to wave goodbye to their parents before they headed to prom and never anticipated the image would draw such widespread condemnation. But Pete Gust, who has a son in the photo, said he understood why his photo of about 60 boys outside the Sauk County Courthouse in Baraboo last spring offended some people. About two-thirds of the boys have their right arms raised in the gesture.

"The optics aren't good," Gust told The Associated Press, but added: "There was never any inkling of that whatsoever. .... There was nothing intended in any way shape or form to simulate anything that was offensive to anyone."

Gust had posted the photo to his photography business website, Wheel Memories, after it was taken in May. He took it down Monday and posted an apology.

At the Baraboo School Board meeting Monday night about a half-dozen speakers addressed the matter.

Baraboo School Board President Kevin Vodak, stressing that he was speaking as a private citizen, said the photo "deeply disappointed me, shamed, appalled and angered me."

"The photo has shaken to the core my personal belief of the process that we as a community and as a school district have made to be tolerant, inclusive, accepting and admitting of all of those who are different from ourselves," he added.

Earlier Monday, about 100 people gathered near the courthouse for a unity rally organizers said was aimed at sending a positive message about Baraboo, a community of 12,000 some 115 miles (185 kilometers) northwest of Milwaukee.

"The point is to show Baraboo is about love," said organizer Sherri Schaaf.

Holocaust group and ACLU criticize photo

The Auschwitz Memorial Twitter page was among groups that have criticized the photo, with its smiling, well-dressed teenagers apparently making a gesture of hate.

"This is why every single day we work to educate," the organization posted. "We need to explain what is the danger of hateful ideology rising. Auschwitz with its gas chambers was at the very end of the long process of normalizing and accommodating hatred."

The group also attached a link to its website, offering lessons on the history of Auschwitz.

"If @barabooSD wishes to know more about what can be the extreme result of normalization of hatred -- and hatred is enrolled in this symbol -- please see some online lessons dedicated to the history of Auschwitz," the group tweeted.

While "students have First Amendment rights," the American Civil Liberties Union of Wisconsin criticized the "shocking and reprehensible" way these students appear to have exercised those rights.

"We hope these students understand what a mistake this was, and we hope that they will join work against the hateful ideology that they appeared to treat so casually in the photo," the group wrote Monday.

"It is equally critical for schools to foster an environment that is safe, welcoming, and non-discriminatory for other students," the ACLU wrote. "To that end, we urge the Baraboo school district to not only investigate this situation but to bring in experts in anti-bias training to engage with students and faculty."