Milton school officials missed an opportunity for education and prevention by refusing to use the word “swastika” when talking about the “offensive symbol” high school students made with their bodies on the gym floor Sept. 30, an Anti-Defamation League spokesman said.

“If you aren’t speaking directly to the type of hate or symbol that was used and what that symbol means, then you’re not fully addressing the situation or the needs of the community that was targeted,” said David Goldenberg, Midwest regional director for the Anti-Defamation League, an international Jewish anti-hate organization.

When asked why he and other school officials wouldn’t use the word, Milton Superintendent Rich Dahman declined to comment.

Goldenberg, who called the Milton incident “troubling, to say the least,” said while it’s good the district discussed the incident with students who were in the class at the time, not using the word “swastika” does not address the issue in the best way.

Between 2016 and 2018, the United States saw a 46% increase in antisemitic events in K-12 schools, Goldenberg said.

Documents obtained by The Gazette through an open-records request include messages between two Milton School District employees who were discussing the Sept. 30 incident.

“Any idea what happened at mhs yesterday?” one staff member asks in the messages.

Another staff member responds before adding in another message “some students in gym class made a swastika with their bodies.”

The staff member who asked about the incident responded “lol wtf” and “like, cmon.”

A football coach emailed the high school principal, saying a member of the media emailed him about some players involved in an incident with a swastika, but he said he gave the person no details.

All other references to the incident in the 85 pages of documents provided by the school district call it an “offensive symbol.” Neither Dahman nor school board President Joe Martin used the word ”swastika” when asked about the incident, but neither denied it was the symbol that was formed.

In the days after the swastika incident, students who were in the gym at the time were spoken to about the symbol, its history and why it is inappropriate, Dahman said. No schoolwide or districtwide conversation was had on the incident or topic, he said.

Parents were notified about an inappropriate incident that happened at the school and told the district followed policy to address it, but no additional information went out to families, Dahman said.

In a news release three days after the incident, Dahman said multiple Milton High School students were disciplined for forming an “offensive symbol” on the gym floor the morning of Sept. 30.

When asked to assess the district’s response to the incident, Martin said he thought it was handled appropriately.

Martin said continued education and awareness can help prevent an incident such as this one from happening again.

“I’m very confident that our response was appropriate and have been assured by administrative and teaching staff that they did go back and help the kids understand what’s involved with these and why that’s not acceptable,” he said.

Dahman told The Gazette on Oct. 3, the day the news release was issued, that he couldn’t say anything more on the subject, including how many students were disciplined or what the symbol was.

The Gazette called the school district multiple times seeking more information, but district officials said they couldn’t comment because of student privacy.

The Gazette filed an open-records request Oct. 4 asking for details about the incident but not information that would identify individual students. The district responded with 85 pages of documents, including emails to staff about the incident, media correspondence, chat messages and news releases. Some of the documents include conversations about how to deal with media and staff communication.

The Gazette on Nov. 15 asked Dahman about the type of education students in the class were given, the focus of that education, how many students participated in the incident, how the district plans to prevent similar incidents, among other questions.

He responded with a written statement:

“At the School District of Milton, our number one priority is to maintain a safe and positive learning environment for all students. To that end, the District has policies and procedures in place designed to address such issues. We are confident that our school and district administration promptly investigated this incident and addressed it with the students in accordance with our policies.”

“As a response to the incident on September 30, staff at Milton High School wanted to not only have consequences for inappropriate student behavior, but also use the situation as a learning experience. MHS staff met with students from that class and discussed the history of the symbol, why it’s offensive, and the negative impact of hate symbols.”

The Gazette scheduled an appointment with Dahman on Tuesday, but he called before the appointment, saying he preferred to have the conversation by phone.

When asked why school officials did not use the word “swastika” when talking about the incident, Dahman said he wouldn’t comment any more on the issue.

Goldenberg said some states have laws that require public secondary schools to include Holocaust education in their curriculum. Wisconsin is not one of them.

The swastika is a symbol adopted by the Nazi Party in Germany before World War II and often is associated with antisemitism.

“What we also encourage is that communities and schools call out hate for what it is and be specific to the kind of hate it is. That’s how you address these issues,” Goldenberg said.

“Many times, hate can be broad,” he said. “Other times, symbols or languages used are specific. In this particular case, if the swastika is used, we know what it symbolizes … it is a symbol that is clearly antisemitic in nature ... calling it what it is is how you can actually address the core problem and address the needs of the targeted community.”

“Often, incidents affect more than just the targeted group. That’s why they’re used by haters,” Goldenberg said. “Students need to understand that. It’s important that they understand how a symbol or how certain speech could be interpreted, intentional or not.”

Dahman said the district did not provide additional training for staff members on how to deal with similar situations because they already are prepared.

“I think our staff is alert to how to handle situations like this,” he said, “and they did a nice job making it clear to students that the use of that symbol is not appropriate.”