Fox News Channel and CBS News were only two of several news trucks parked outside PHS on the afternoon of Friday, April 8, when over 100 students lined up across the front lawn.
While some students spoke to reporters, a few underclassmen also performed Nazi salutes to the camera crews.
Two days earlier on April 6, Jamaica Ponder ’17 had posted an article entitled “Drinking Games” on her blog, condemning the actions of PHS students at an off-campus party on April 2 during which they engaged in a game of “Jews vs. Nazis” beer pong. On the blog, Ponder published a photo clearly depicting the faces of several PHS juniors and seniors in front of beer cans and cups arranged in the shapes of a Star of David and of a swastika.
According to Ponder, her purpose for writing the post was to highlight the actions and implications of insensitivity and ignorance in PHS. “I don’t think that these kids are neo-Nazis,” she said. “They’re so ignorant and so privileged that they think they can do whatever they want and get away with it. But you can’t.”
Over the course of the next few days, the story made international headlines, appearing in newspapers such as The New York Times and the Washington Post, sparking debate about the cultural implications of the game, the prevalence of substance abuse, and the dangers of social media.
In particular, numerous students on social media questioned the validity of anti-Semitic or malicious intent in playing the game, claimed the incident was representative of larger, national issues, or weighed the consequences for the district in light of a few students’ actions. Over 500 PHS students were invited to a student-created Facebook event for April 8 titled “Fighting for the Good at PHS!,” which sought to demonstrate that PHS should not be defined by recent negative press attention.
On April 8, two Princeton police officers visited the house of the student who hosted the party, concluding in a police report that day that the student’s father “denied having any knowledge of the party that took place,” and that there was no probable cause to charge him with serving alcohol knowingly to a minor. According to the report, the father’s consequences for the student is loss of phone privileges, reading a book about the Holocaust, and writing an essay about learning gained.
Using the hashtag #freetheboys on social media, many students spoke out about minimizing potential consequences for the students in the photo. However, others believe that familiarity and friendship obscures students’ views of the events. “We see stuff online all the time, and when we see stuff from another school, we feel that the people should be punished,” Shahieym Brown ’16 said. “People don’t think it happens to them, so when it happens to them, they have the opposite reaction … so I think people are just looking at it the wrong way.”
In response to the incident, Superintendent Steve Cochrane released a statement on April 7 condemning the incident, and he and Principal Gary Snyder sent a joint email addressed to district parents and students on April 10, urging the community to respond to recent events with “honesty and integrity.” In a statement to the school over the intercom during eighth period on April 8, Snyder said, “Underage drinking of alcohol, the trivialization of the Holocaust to the use of symbols of hate are wrong. They have no place in our school, nor in our community.”
Many teachers also held class discussions on the issue, allowing students to voice their opinions and concerns in person rather than just over the Internet. “When you are behind a screen you don’t necessarily respect your opponent because you don’t necessarily see them as a person; you see them as an icon,” said Student Body Vice President Isabelle Sohn ’16. “So talking about it in class in a moderated way has been helpful.”
As the initial anger and confusion following the incident died down, many looked to the future and how the PHS community can learn from the incident. “Those who don’t understand history are doomed to repeat it. And while I don’t think this is a rising trend of anti-Semitism in the school, I do think that if they don’t understand now, there are going to be much graver consequences in the future,” Benjamin Donnelly-Fine ’16 said. “This is a learning experience for all of us.”
Snyder also held a meeting with Student Council members during fifth period and a faculty meeting after school on April 8 to discuss the incident and the school’s response. “One of the things we discussed was the possibility of implementing seminars regarding the intolerance of anti-Semitism or anything that is discriminatory toward any group of people,” said Junior Class President George Zhu ’17. “I feel like these classes or seminars would really help to crystallize the idea in all students’ minds that this type of behavior is not allowed at all.”
Snyder wrote in an email that a car crash reenactment and an assembly for Holocaust Remembrance Day were among the other events already being planned in response to the need for strengthening ability to engage in civil discourse on difficult topics.
Moving forward, many look to teachers and administration to address a disconnect between what is taught and what students take away about certain subjects. “The school teaches about the Holocaust, we teach about tolerance, we teach about underage drinking, appropriate use of social media, digital citizenship,” said French teacher Malachi Wood. “We teach about personal responsibility, but the fact that this happened means that we do need to evaluate how well students are really getting the message and how they’re applying this message, and we need to do some introspection to see how we can do things better.”