The principal of a Chicago high school has been suspended over his handling of a student who wore a German soldier’s uniform and gave a Nazi salute onstage during a Halloween costume contest.
Jones College Prep Principal Joseph Powers appeared next to the student in the offending costume in a photo posted to Twitter from the school Halloween competition on Oct. 31.
In alarming footage also shared on Twitter, the student is seen goose-stepping across a stage and performing a Nazi salute as audience members booed him.
Distressed students pointed out the student to Powers, but he informed them that the boy was dressed as a Communist-era East German soldier, the Chicago Sun-Times reported.
“I tried to explain the context and time period of the uniform to the students who spoke with me, but apparently the student who wore the uniform may have told people it was from the 1940s,” Powers wrote in a memo to school staff, according to the paper.
“I spoke with him this afternoon and explained the same thing to him and the inferences others may have drawn,” he added.
But the administrator of the elite selective-enrollment school in the South Loop drew a backlash over his response to the incident.
“We instantly felt disturbed by what we saw,” senior Isis Gullette told WGN-TV.
A staff member told Block Club Chicago that one student was so distraught by the display that they took a mental-health day off after the contest.
The student said the uniform-wearing boy has made racist comments in the past, the staffer told the outlet on condition of anonymity.
The student who took a day off “is Jewish and queer, and they don’t feel supported or safe at the school. The behavior never changes, and [Powers] never does anything about it,” the staff member told Block Club Chicago.
“There are never consequences. If you have enough powerful white parents in your corner, you can do whatever the f— you want,” the employee added.
In his first message to parents on Wednesday about the incident, Powers wrote: “Many of our students and staff came to school on Monday, October 31, dressed in Halloween costumes. We held a costume contest in the afternoon during Ac Lab, which was fun and well-received,” the Chicago Tribune reported.
“Amid all the other costumes, a member of our school community wore a military surplus army uniform. Staff and students expressed their concerns about the uniform, believing that it represented an expression of antisemitism. Additionally, a video of the costume parade has since appeared on social media,” he said in the email.
“I certainly understand and regret the discomfort and harm felt by some members of our school community. Please be assured that we take the well-being of all students seriously and do not tolerate hateful expressions of any kind. In this situation, it certainly appears this was not the intent of the Halloween costume,” Powers added.
But after increasing backlash, he sent a separate email to the school community.
“Let me say clearly and plainly that what occurred caused harm to many of our students and staff who recognized this as an act of anti-Semitism,” he wrote Thursday, WGN reported.
“Let me also say clearly and plainly that intolerance, bigotry, and bias-based behaviors have no place in our school … We want you to know that we are addressing this situation directly with the member of our school community who wore the costume in accordance with protocols for processing bias-based harm,” the principal added.
But on Friday, Chicago Public Schools announced that Powers has been suspended.
“As many of you may have heard, seen, or read, there was an incident earlier this week where a member of one of our school communities wore a German military uniform to school as a Halloween costume — an act that was widely recognized by many students, staff and members of our broader CPS community as anti-Semitic,” schools chief Pedro Martinez said, the Chicago Tribune reported.
“This incident caused harm to many students and staff, and it is completely inconsistent with our values as a school district,” he said.
“In response, CPS has launched a full investigation into the incident in accordance with our district’s protocols for processing bias-based harm. … Furthermore, CPS has removed the school’s leader from their principal duties, effective immediately, pending the results of that investigation,” Martinez added.
Meanwhile, a student walkout also has been planned for Nov. 14 to address “the way administration ‘handles’ racial & ethnic discrimination at Jones,” WGN reported, citing a social media post advertising the plan.
Senior Yamali Rodas said she plans to participate.
“I’m kind of disappointed in the way that administration has responded,” Rodas, who heads the school’s Association of Latin American Students, told the Sun-Times.
“They should have set him aside and had a conversation with him about why it was inappropriate,” Rodas added.
Parent Cassie Creswell said Powers should have immediately made the boy remove the outfit and called his parents to discuss the matter.
“I’m very concerned. I have been tracking the rise in right-wing extremism in the suburbs for a while now, and this is a real thing, and its connection to actual physical violence is a real thing, and to have the response from the school be what it was, it’s very disturbing,” Creswell, the former chair of the Local School Council, told the Sun-Times.
Powers has faced controversy before.
Earlier this year, he reportedly survived the local school council’s effort to oust him for allegedly violating the district’s residency requirement by maintaining a primary home in Missouri, failing to properly address teacher misconduct complaints and fostering an unwelcoming environment for students and employees of color and transgender and gender-nonconforming children.
The Chicago Teachers Union also has issued a statement condemning the incident, saying the principal has been “plagued for years with charges that include persistent racial intolerance.”
“Everyone at Jones suffers as behavior such as this goes unchecked and undisciplined, and for Mayor Lori Lightfoot and Chicago Public Schools to keep the current administration in place shows their lack of regard for the families, faculty and staff they should be protected,” said union rep Chris Geovanis, according to Block Club Chicago.
On Friday, the CTU called on Powers to step down.
“We call on him to resign — and if he refuses, for CPS to remove him from his leadership position at Jones,” the union said in a statement.