Alabama school’s response to Nazi salute in classroom ‘disconcerting,’ civil rights group says

Published 10:20 pm Friday, February 11, 2022

An Alabama school system’s “disconcerting” response to complaints from a Jewish student that a teacher had classmates perform a Nazi salute shows a lack of commitment to diversity, an organization that promotes civil and human rights said Friday.

While Mountain Brooks Schools issued a statement saying it was “deeply apologetic for the pain” caused by a lesson that “lacked sensitivity,” the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute questioned actions by the system, which previously ditched a diversity program produced by an organization that combats antisemitism.

“It is in this light that we find a more recent incident involving the Nazi salute displayed by students in a Mountain Brook classroom particularly disconcerting, as it shows a conspicuous lack of preparation on the part of administrators to discuss, teach and lead in this area,” the city-owned educational institute said in a statement.

A spokesman for the school system, located in a nearly all-white, wealthy suburb of Birmingham, did not immediately return an email message seeking comment.

In a story first reported by the Birmingham-based Southern Jewish Life, a Jewish student said he was shocked last month when a history teacher at Mountain Brook High School had classmates stand and give a stiff-armed Nazi salute during a lesson on the way symbols change.

The student, Ephraim Tytell, said school officials reprimanded him and told him to apologize to the teacher after he shared a video and photos of the incident on social media. The student said he refused.

The lesson was meant to show how symbols change by demonstrating that something very similar to what’s now widely known as a Nazi salute was used before World War II to salute the U.S. flag. Called the “Bellamy Salute,” it was ditched in 1942 for the right-hand-over-the-heart gesture following the United States’ entry into the war.

On Tuesday, the school system issued a statement saying the video and photos shared online “are not representative of the lesson” and no one tried to teach students how to do a Nazi salute.

With blowback continuing, the system issued a more conciliatory statement on Thursday, that said in part: “There are more effective ways to teach this subject without recreating painful, emotional responses to history’s atrocities.”

“To improve our instructional strategies, we will continue to work with the Alabama Holocaust Education Center to advance training for our teachers surrounding Antisemitism, the Holocaust, and its symbols,” said the statement. The system said it stands “absolutely and unequivocally” against antisemitism.

The Birmingham Jewish Federation said the system’s follow-up statement was a “direct result” of conversations it had with leaders of the school system. School officials “fully recognize and understand the insensitivity of the instruction in the classroom that day and the absence of a safe space for learning for the students,” said the Jewish organization.

William Galloway, a spokesman for Mountain Brooks Schools, said it was against system policy to comment on whether the teacher remained in the classroom.

Last year, Mountain Brook’s school system responded to community complaints about a diversity program produced by the Anti-Defamation League by dropping the lessons. Schools had begun using the material after antisemitic events, including a video of a student with a swastika drawn on his body

Opponents claimed the lessons focused too much on race and gender and criticized the ADL as being too political.