BARABOO — Was it a wave, or a Nazi salute? The parent who took a photo of a group of Wisconsin high school boys giving what appears to be a Nazi salute on the steps of the Sauk County Courthouse said Tuesday, Nov. 13 he was simply asking the teens to wave goodbye to their parents before they headed off to prom and never anticipated the image would draw such widespread condemnation.
"I had asked the boys to raise your hand and wave. 'Alright guys, here's what we're going to do for the last picture.' Having done weddings before, I've often had the groomsmen wave as they were heading into the church," said Peter Gust.
Gust, who operates Wheel Memories and has a son in the photo, said the timing sequence of the shot he took of about 60 boys outside the Sauk County Courthouse in Baraboo last spring showed the teens' arms extended in various stages as they raised them.
"There was nothing intended in any way shape or form to simulate anything that was offensive to anyone," Gust told The Associated Press. "If there's any error, it was me in timing the shot."
Gust had posted the photo to his business website after it was taken last May, but took it down Monday after it surfaced in social media posts and was shared widely, prompting strong criticism from individuals and from Jewish organizations.
"To anyone that was hurt I sincerely apologize," Gust wrote on his website.
Someone sent the photo to a freelance journalist in New York.
"I was shocked by it," said Jules Suzdaltsev.
Suzdaltsev tweeted it, and it was shared around the world.
"Ultimately, I hope it gets the administration and the community to rally around the kids who've been bullied and to maybe hammer in the seriousness of what these kids are joking about or taking seriously," said Suzdaltsev.
Suzdaltsev and Gust said they'd been the target of hate messages. Gust said if he knew the photo showed a Nazi salute, he would never have posted it on his website.
"I'd be ticked. I was a history teacher. My dad's a veteran. My oldest son is a veteran. I'd be ticked. I'd be upset with the boys," said Gust.
One of the students in the photo who did not raise his arm, Jordan Blue, said he believes some of the students did intend to make the Nazi salute as a joke.
"It was very disrespectful to what my beliefs are, and it was a very bad representation of the senior class and the Baraboo School District, because by all means, the Baraboo School District does not support that kind of actions and it is a district that provides many opportunities for the students," Blue told the Baraboo News Republic. "This is something that I will never forget."
The Baraboo School District said it was looking into the matter, and local police said they are helping with that investigation,
"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," district Superintendent Lori Mueller said in a letter to parents Monday.
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.
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland was among those criticizing the photo on social media.
"This is why every single day we work hard to educate. We need to explain what is the danger of hateful ideology rising," the Auschwitz Memorial tweeted.