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Controversy lingers after N.J. school agrees to reprint yearbook with alleged hate symbol

Facing mounting pressure from district families, a Secaucus, N.J., high school announced it will reprint a yearbook that many believe contains an Neo-Nazi hate symbol.

But some students and parents at High Tech High School say the do-over isn’t enough.

Instead, they’re frustrated by what they see as the district’s refusal to address the inclusion of the symbol — the number “88,” which the Anti-Defamation League classifies as a “white supremacist numerical code” — or the anti-Semitic associations that offended many.

“As a parent, I’m happy that they are reprinting the yearbook. But as a Jew I’m very disappointed,” said Lyle Hysen, who has been active in efforts to protest the symbol. “Nobody ever acknowledged that it was a hate symbol or anti-Semitic. It was more that we were a bother.”

Amy Lin Rodriguez, superintendent of the school district containing High Tech High School, downplayed the symbol’s impact on the decision to reprint in a July 22 letter to district families.

“There are a number of items in the yearbook that undermine that positive experience and we will correct that. Please be aware that this is not due to any one particular item,” she wrote. The letter did not mention the “88” or any other specific items in the yearbook.

The coronavirus pandemic made it impossible to review the yearbook adequately, she wrote.

The controversy started in late June, when students at the technology-focused public school, which has been closed since March due to the coronavirus pandemic, picked up their yearbooks. Flipping through the pages of student entries, most of which contained quirky photos, inside jokes, and inspirational quotes, some were startled to see that one of their classmates had submitted just the number “88.”

The ADL explains that the symbol is shorthand for “Heil Hitler,” with each “8” representing an “H,” the eighth letter of the alphabet. The organization said that the slogan and symbol are used not just by neo-Nazis but “throughout the entire white supremacist movement.” The Forward is not naming the student who submitted the symbol because he is a minor. The student’s family declined to comment.

Students and parents quickly contacted the school and created an online petition urging the district to mail a replacement page to each student.

After conducting an investigation and asking district legal counsel John Dineen to review the case, the school concluded that the student had been referring to a nickname for a local park. In a July 3 email to parents, Lin Rodriguez offered refunds to students who wished to return their yearbook but did not offer replacement pages.

Frustrated by what they saw as a lackluster response, parents turned to politicians for support. On July 7, the city council of nearby Hoboken unanimously passed a resolution supporting the petition.

The legal review conducted by Dineen found that prior to the yearbook’s publication a teacher moderator and committee of 11 students were asked to “ferret out inappropriate messages” and found no problematic inclusions. A spokesperson for the district declined to comment on the issue.

On July 23 Brian Osborne, the district parent who created the original petition, published an update that criticized the district for failing to “acknowledge the hate symbol” and said that it should “demonstrate it isn’t just whitewashing the real issue by detailing these changes transparently.” The petition has gained over 1,200 signatures.

Another N.J. school, Haddonfield High School, faced a similar issue when a yearbook photo showed a student flashing the “OK” sign, which has been used as a white supremacist gesture. The school quickly acknowledged the sign’s association with hate groups and plans to provide new yearbooks to students.

Hysen contrasted Haddonfield High’s with that of High Tech High School, which he said showed a lack of concern for Jewish students. “It’s been a month since my daughter got her yearbook and came in showing me this,” he said. “That’s just cold.”

Irene Katz Connelly is an editorial fellow at the Forward. You can contact her at connelly@forward.com.

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