Swastika incident sparks discipline
July 3, 2008 · Updated 12:30 PM
"It was a joke. Just a silly way to get someone to wash her car. Just a joke.That's what three Oak Harbor High School students thought when they etched a swastika in paint on another student's car windshield late last month.No one's laughing.Everyone involved now readily admits that at best, it was a bad joke - and at worst, it came very close to being a hate crime. Caught in the act by school surveillance cameras, the students found quickly that, in the heightened awareness of a post-Columbine High School world, school officials and parents see no humor at all in such behavior.Though the act was later determined to be more dumb than malicious, the students were given temporary suspensions and are now getting sensitivity training.We did treat it very seriously, said Pat Felger, dean of students at Oak Harbor High School. On the morning of March 29, Felger was watching one of the school's new parking lot surveillance monitors when she saw two male students marking something on a car while a third male student watched. Felger intercepted the trio and took them back to the car to investigate. When she saw the swastika, the students were taken to the school's office.One of the things I told them is that this is something you can be arrested for, Felger said.It's true.The swastika, an emblem of Nazi Germany, is acknowledged by state law as a symbol of terror, intimidation and harassment. It is a felony to use it or any such symbol to harass anyone on the basis of their race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation, or mental, physical, or sensory handicaps.But there's a fine legal line between malicious harassment and free speech. The First Amendment to the Constitution protects someone who carries a Nazi flag in front of a general audience - in a parade, for instance. But it does not protect someone who paints a swastika on the wall of a synagogue because that would be considered a targeted threat.In the high school case, Felger called on Oak Harbor Police Officer John Little, the school's on-campus cop, for advice. Little concluded that no laws were broken because the students' intent was not to intimidate or maliciously harass the other student, who was neither of a minority race or Jewish.There has to be intent, Little said.Felger said she also consulted with an Island County Sheriff's deputy who specializes in hate crimes. He agreed with Little's conclusion.Vance said the students had no previous record of committing similar acts and had no affiliations with any hate groups.Vance said the vehicle already had tempera paint on it from a school event. The boys etched the symbol into the existing paint. It was a poorly chosen prank, she said, to get the other student to wash her car.They put the ugliest thing they could think of on her window,'' Vance said.The two students who etched the swastika were given three days of in-school suspension, which means they spent three school days in a special suspension room with their school work. They were not permitted to interact with other students or to participate in extra-curricular programs or events.The student who was a bystander was ordered to attend two four-hour Saturday schools. All three had to remove the offending symbol from the car's windshield and enroll in sensitivity-training classes.MORE SENSITIVE TIMESThe student whose car was marked told school administrators that she was not pleased with what the boys had done but was not personally offended.Nevertheless, the boys' motives had to be questioned, Assistant Principal Lynette Vance said. Particularly in light of new programs to head off hate crimes and school violence nationwide, as well as last year's dramatic school shootings at Colorado's Columbine High School. At Columbine, two teens chose Adolph Hitler's birthday to carry out an armed assault on their school. They eventually killed 15, including classmates, a teacher and themselves, and wounded 20 others.In videotapes the shooters made prior to the massacre, the swastika symbol was seen in their rooms. When Columbine students returned to their school months later it was discovered that someone had carved new swastikas into four bathroom walls.Columbine and similar school shooting incidents over the past three years have forced schools across the country to keep a more watchful eye for potential problems and stop school violence before it starts, Oak Harbor Principal Dick Devlin said.Schools are a mirror of society - its problems as well as its wishes, hopes and dreams, he said. Our society is concerned about safety in schools. I think we reflect that sensitivity.Last year, Oak Harbor High School was one of only six schools in the state to receive a special Community Oriented Policing Services grant. The grant paid for a study of intimidation and harassment on campus and the development of programs to deal with school crime and violence.Devlin said last month's incident was an isolated event and not an indicator of general attitudes on the high school campus. He was aware of only one other occasion several years ago when an Oak Harbor student had to be disciplined for drawing a swastika. He said he felt in both instances his staff took swift action while still honoring the rights of the kids involved.Students don't lose their constitutional rights when they walk through the school room door, he said. This week, the prank-victim's mother said she was satisfied with the action the school took. Though she said that her daughter and the boys are well aware of the seriousness of the incident, she cautioned against overreaction.It was done as a joke. They just chose something really stupid, she said. They feel bad. I hope everybody sees it was just something dumb.EQUAL JUSTICE?Two of the male offenders are prominent athletes at the school, which raised the question about whether they received any special treatment. Vance said no. In fact, she said the students' parents were extremely upset and insisted that the school do whatever was necessary. The discipline dished out was consistent with past procedures Vance said.The behavior of student athletes is governed both by school codes and by a special athletic code that all of them sign before they can play. The athletic code cites delinquent behavior as an offense and holds kids accountable after school and beyond the end of the school year, in addition to school hours.Felger said it was ironic that a week prior to the swastika incident, the school's drama class featured a play called Edelweiss which focused on the horrors of Nazi Germany.That was a way to heighten awareness, she said."