Calling it out: Student swastika video causes controversy in Mountain Brook

Footage of high school students joking around and drawing swastikas on a student’s back has led to an examination of antisemitism at Mountain Brook High School.

The footage that was posted to the What’s Happening in Mountain Brook Facebook page by Caroline Gill came from a Snapchat video that had been uploaded by a student at Mountain Brook. Rachel Simms made that screen recording of the video after she saw a friend, who is a former Mountain Brook student, watching it on her phone.

In the footage, there were several students, apparently at a party. The shirtless student had two large swastikas and the word “Heil” on his back, written in Sharpie. According to many who viewed the video, the student is either currently or was recently a student at Mountain Brook High School, and at least three of those in the video are students there. The original video was apparently made by his sister.

Simms, a rising senior at Indian Springs School, said when she saw the video, she recorded a copy of it “to share disapproval.”

Gill, the only Jewish student at Pelham High School, said Simms “showed it to me and we decided we’re going to post it.”

Located just outside Birmingham, Mountain Brook has by far the largest Jewish student enrollment of any school in Alabama, and possibly as many as every other school in the state combined.

Mountain Brook has the largest Jewish community in the state. It is said that one historical reason is that when members of the Jewish community, like so many others, started moving “over the mountain” there was an “unwritten understanding” in the 1950s and 1960s that Jews moved to Mountain Brook but “did not” move to neighboring Vestavia. While that has changed over the decades, Mountain Brook is still the primary location for Jewish families in the area.

In a media release that was also emailed to parents in Mountain Brook, the Mountain Brook School System said they have “been in touch with the Mountain Brook Police Department, Birmingham Jewish Federation, and local faith leaders regarding this incident.”

The school system “condemns all hateful ideologies and actions. The conduct exhibited in the video is in direct conflict with the values of the school system. MBS is in the process of investigating the incident and determining the legal parameters for actions occurring outside of school.”

The statement concluded by saying Mountain Brook Schools “strives to foster a culture of inclusion, connection, and care. The school system is steadfastly committed to strengthening that culture and continuing to develop solidarity in the Mountain Brook community.”

Federation CEO Danny Cohn said he and Mountain Brook Superintendent Richard Barlow have been discussing the incident, and Cohn hopes Mountain Brook will adopt the “No Place for Hate” curriculum developed by the Anti-Defamation League. The regional ADL office in Atlanta said it is working with the Federation to address the issue.

“We share in the public’s disappointment in the actions shown and are working towards a swift remediation,” Cohn said. He added that the incident should prompt people “to take a hard look at the community internally and say how did we get to where these children — and they are children — would have even thought that putting a swastika on their back with the word ‘heil’ was appropriate.”

Simms said she is tired of being in a culture where “people consider it to be almost rude to call people out or bring attention to issues like this because they are afraid of the backlash that could come from standing up for what they believe in.”

While Gill said they have received some pushback from peers, she was especially concerned by classmates who asked why this was a big deal. “There is no education surrounding the Holocaust” except in the honors course, and many of the students who weren’t in the honors course had no idea what a swastika was, she said.

But overall, she has received a very positive response for posting the video and shining a light on the situation.

Gill, a rising junior, lived in Mountain Brook while attending Altamont and Indian Springs, and moved to Pelham before the most recent school year. She said she tried to post it to other community Facebook pages, but it was removed from Homewood’s page.

Last year, Gill went to a national leadership program with BBYO, where they had a Holocaust memorial program one evening. She said there were 102 of them in the room, with everyone crying as a note written by two teens in the Holocaust was read.

It hit her that had it not been for Nazi Germany, “there could have been so many more teens in the gym” with them, and she felt that “something had been stolen from me,” and it became personal.

Through that experience, she feels a stronger need to defend Israel and call out antisemitism.

After Gill posted the video to the Mountain Brook page, many non-Jewish readers reacted with shock and horror, while many current Jewish students and alumni — recent and going back to the 1970s — detailed problems they experienced at the schools, from swastikas and slurs that were brushed under the rug to overt Christian missionizing in the schools by visitors and by fellow students.

Many Jews who posted said they had no negative experiences at Mountain Brook schools, while others gave their examples and expressed frustration that these problems continue to be unaddressed, especially when the perpetrators come from powerful families.

There was also an overall sense on the Facebook board that the lack of diversity in Mountain Brook exacerbates the problem.

In March 2019, a social media video of students at Spain Park High School in Hoover, a few miles south of Mountain Brook, caused a similar stir as it contained numerous racial and antisemitic slurs.

While schools can institute educational programs, in both cases, there are questions of how much disciplinary action can be taken by schools for activities that do not take place on campus or during school hours.