(JTA) — Students at one of Chicago’s most selective public high schools are calling for improved Holocaust education after a classmate goose-stepped across the stage of a Halloween costume contest while wearing a German military uniform.
The principal of Jones College Prep, which draws high-performing students from across Chicago, has already been suspended over his handling of the incident, which he initially downplayed. The Chicago school district has launched an investigation into whether the school followed “protocols for processing bias-based harm.”
But students say the incident is bigger than the single senior whose provocation has sent their school reeling, or even about the principal’s response. At a rally attended by the vast majority of students on Monday, speakers said they want their school to comply with Illinois’ pioneering Holocaust education mandate.
“Not everybody is fortunate to receive a yearlong education about the Holocaust as I received at my Jewish middle school in eighth grade,” Riley Ablin, a co-president of the school’s Jewish student group who addressed the rally, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
“Maybe they read one page out of a textbook freshman year, and maybe they didn’t,” Ablin said. “Having more of a well-rounded curriculum on the Holocaust, I think, would give people the background and knowledge to not dress up as Nazi soldiers or things similar in the future.”
The incident was one of several this year where costumes evocative of Nazis disrupted Halloween celebrations. In New York City, a man dressed in a Nazi uniform, complete with a swastika on his arm, was thrown out of a well known cafe, in one prominent example, while in Wisconsin a man who dressed as Adolf Hitler was fired from his job at a children’s museum.
At Jones College Prep, a senior whom students say is known for making offensive statements donned an olive green uniform and told people he was dressed as a “German soldier from the 1940s.” The costume did not include any Nazi insignia, but during a costume parade in the school’s atrium, he marched like a Nazi.
Many of his classmates booed, according to video from the event that circulated on social media afterwards. Photographs that circulated also showed the school’s principal, Joseph Powers, putting his arm around the student’s shoulders and speaking to him privately.
The principal’s subsequent actions ignited a firestorm. He told teachers at the school by email that he recognized the uniform as being an East German uniform from the 1980s based on his personal experience and that he had tried to “explain the context and time period of the uniform to the students who spoke with me” and to the student who wore the costume.
Then, in a message informing parents about the incident, he said the costume was “a military surplus army uniform” that students and staff members had believed “to be an expression of antisemitism” — but that he disagreed.
“I certainly regret the discomfort and harm felt by some members of our school community,” Powers wrote. “Please be assured that we take the well-being of all students seriously and do not tolerate hateful expressions of any kind. In this situation, it certainly appears that this was not the intent.”
The explanation fell flat. “I’m not even Jewish but I know that s— was f—ed,” one Jones College Prep student said in a TikTok video that circulated after the costume parade.
Powers has previously drawn criticism for not taking bias incidents at the school seriously. Last year, the school’s advisory council voted to recommend his removal, citing those concerns, but the school district rejected their recommendation. His longtime critics said the latest incident reflected a larger pattern.
“There should be a playbook of what you do, and what you do is not try to pretend that the child’s intent was not to appear like a Nazi,” Cassie Creswell, a parent and the council’s former chair, told the Chicago Tribune last week. “It’s clearly his intent.”
In a subsequent email to students and parents, Powers wrote that “we realize that this has greatly impacted our school community and acknowledge that we should have handled the incident with greater care.” He emphasized that he understood that the incident had been harmful and that “intolerance, bigotry and bias-based behaviors have no place in our school,” adding that district officials would support the school’s ongoing response.
Soon afterwards, with the city’s teachers union backing students’ plan for a mass protest, Chicago officials went further. They removed Powers on Friday and said they would scrutinize what had happened at Jones College Prep.
“This incident caused harm to many students and staff, and it is completely inconsistent with our values as a school district,” Pedro Martinez, the district’s CEO, said in a statement. “In response, CPS has launched a full investigation into the incident in accordance with our district’s protocols for processing bias-based harm.”
Jewish students say they don’t just want to look backwards. They worked together with the school’s Black students group to plan Monday’s rally, which was initially supposed to be a walkout before being changed to a sit-in over security concerns. The city’s teachers union supported the student protest.
“This incident that happened recently was really directed toward the Jews,” Ablin said. “But if we know a lot about our history, we know that Hitler didn’t like anybody who wasn’t part of the Aryan race. So it was important to work with other groups to make this a really powerful and meaningful experience for all students.”
Ablin said her group, Jewish Student Connection, is usually more focused on building pride among Jewish students and creating Jewish experiences for teens who might not otherwise have any. During Sukkot, for example, the club held an event to build candy sukkahs.
“We just had wanted to keep it informative, but also allowing students to express themselves and have a good time,” Ablin said. “But sadly with the recent events, the club’s activities are going to have to change a little bit to things that are more serious.”
At the top of the list, she said, is pushing for changes to the school’s program of study as early as next year to include more instruction about the Holocaust. Since 1990, Illinois has required a “unit of instruction” about the Holocaust in both elementary and high schools, making it the first of what is now nearly two dozen states to mandate Holocaust education.
But what constitutes a unit is open to interpretation, and Ablin said she had learned while researching the topic for an essay last year that at her school, the Holocaust is a formal part of the curriculum in a single required history class.
“When I talked to history teachers last year to gain perspective on my essay, they all said they wish they had more time to teach the Holocaust,” she said. “They just felt like there was no time in the school year to really find a meaningful way to do it.”