The Wisconsin students who appeared to make a Nazi salute in a widely criticized photo will not be punished, the school’s superintendent said this week in a letter to parents.
The superintendent, Lori Mueller of the Baraboo School District, said in the letter that the district was “not in a position to punish the students for their actions” because of their First Amendment rights.
“As previously stated, we cannot know the intentions in the hearts of those who were involved,” Ms. Mueller wrote in the letter, which was obtained by The Baraboo News Republic.
The district investigated the episode for about 10 days with help from the police.
“Despite our efforts, we are still unclear about some key details,” the superintendent wrote on Wednesday.
The photograph was taken by a parent in May before the Baraboo High School junior prom, and was not commissioned by the school, the letter said. The boys in the photograph, who were standing outside the Sauk County Courthouse in downtown Baraboo, were current and former students at the high school.
In the photo, many of the students stand with one arm raised, palms down and elbows locked straight, in a gesture that looks identical to a Nazi salute. One student in the front row is making the O.K. sign with his right forefinger and thumb, a hand gesture that has been adopted by white nationalists and is often used to troll liberals.
The image drew outrage after it was posted on Twitter on Nov. 11 by an anonymous Twitter account. The post said, “We even got the black kid to throw it up.” (The photograph appears to show one black student, who is partly obscured.)
“We have worked very, very hard over the last six years to make Baraboo very inviting and very inclusive,” Mayor Mike Palm said the week the photo was shared on social media. “Obviously, some of that has failed, based on this picture, so we have a lot of work to do.”
The parent who took the photo, Peter Gust, posted the image on his website, Wheel Memories, where it was visible until Nov. 12, when it was deleted. It can still be seen via the Wayback Machine, an internet archive.
A statement on Mr. Gust’s website said the page with the prom photos had been modified because of “malevolent behavior on the part of some in society.”
“To anyone that was hurt I sincerely apologize,” the statement said.
Not all of the students in the photograph were gesturing. Jordan Blue, a student wearing a red bow tie, could be seen standing in the upper right corner with his hands at his sides.
In a statement to Jules Suzdaltsev, a journalist, Mr. Blue said that the photographer had instructed the boys “to make the sign” and that Mr. Blue did not have time to leave because the picture “was taken within five seconds.”
He did not raise his arm because “I knew what my morals were and it was not to salute something I didn’t firmly believe in,” he said.
Brock Turkington, who also appeared in the photograph, told the television station WISC that it was not supposed to be a hateful gesture.
“As we were about to take that photo, the photographer instructed the boys to give a ‘high-sign,’” Mr. Turkington said in a statement to the station. “The photographer instructed us to extend our arms out, no one knew what a ‘high-sign’ was. I asked another student next to me ‘What are we doing?’ He responded, ‘Stick your arm out.’”
“Looking at the picture now, I understand why people believe it is related to anti-Semitism,” the statement continued. “As an outsider, I would have the same impression. That was never the intent at that time.”
Mr. Gust, the parent who took the photograph, also insisted it was not meant to be a Nazi salute.
“I’d said to them, ‘O.K., boys, you’re going to say goodbye to your parents, so wave,’” he told WISC, adding that interpreting it as a hateful gesture was “dead wrong.”
Baraboo is a town of 12,000 people about 40 miles northwest of Madison. The population is 94 percent white, according to the 2010 census.
When the photo began circulating online, the Baraboo School District apologized, saying the image “has been rightly described as hateful, frightening and disappointing” and pledging to host community programs to address the actions of the students, which “deeply hurt people around the world.”
On Monday, more than 200 people attended the first of those forums, the superintendent’s letter said. Another will be held on Thursday.
Ms. Mueller wrote that the image had been posted on social media “to create harm.”
“Our focus is shifting to work with the students involved on restorative practices to repair broken relationships with peers, families and the community,” she said.