MERCER ISLAND, Wash. — The Mercer Island School District has condemned the actions of two Mercer Island High School students who were photographed giving a Nazi salute.
The photo was widely circulated through the student body in recent days. It was reported to the Anti-Defamation League Monday, said Miri Cypers, who is the regional director of the Anti-Defamation League’s Pacific Northwest Region.
“As a resident, as a parent, as a community leader I think these kinds of incidents are painful. They’re shocking, they’re disturbing,” said Cypers, who lives in Mercer Island.
Emma Lerner was at her running start class off campus Monday morning when she heard fellow Mercer Island High School students joking and laughing about the photo.
“As the only Jewish person in the class I was just horrified,” Lerner said Wednesday. “I think it’s disgusting this kind of behavior is happening in our community, a community that has such a high Jewish population.”
Lerner said this isn’t the first time she’s heard of anti-Semitic behavior on Mercer Island.
“There’s a different reaction that the Jewish students have to this photo. There’s an innate guttural fear,” she said.
Jordan Lerner, her father, was angry when his daughter told him about the photo.
“As a Jewish man and a Jewish family, it’s incredibly disturbing,” he said. "The pain of 11 million murders that comes behind this and the symbiology is just not understood and accepted.”
Both father and daughter want the school district to do more. They said the letter issued by Superintendent Donna Colosky and school Principal Vicki Puckett isn’t enough.
In the letter addressed to school district families, Colosky and Puckett said the “inappropriate anti-Semitic conduct” occurred off campus. They said the photo “negatively impacted our educational environment.”
“We have worked very hard to help educate our students on matters of cultural awareness, equity, and inclusion. Sadly, this situation highlights that we - as both a school, District and Island community - must continue to focus on this work,” the letter read.
A district spokesman wouldn’t comment on whether the two students in the photo were suspended or expelled.
Cypers said her office is working closely with Mercer Island High School to come up with ways to move forward.
“We always see these kinds of incidents as teaching moments,” Cypers said. “At the ADL we firmly believe hate is something that is learned, but it can be unlearned.”
Anti-Semitic crimes are skyrocketing nationwide, Cypers said.
“Last year we saw a 94 percent increase in hate incidents targeting Jewish students in K-12 schools over the previous year,” she said. “In 2019, I expect those figures to only continue to grow.”
Cypers blamed the current political climate as a reason for the rise in crime. She said “kids are parroting a lot of behaviors they’re seeing in the media and at home.”
Jordan Lerner said the district needs to engage the entire Mercer Island community in their plan to keep incidents like this from happening again.
“The schools are the heart of any community and this is a community conversation,” he said. “They’re looking at this as a single, isolated incident. They’re not seeing the fear that something like this can cause in people.”