On Thursday, Nicollet Public School Superintendent Dennis Morrow got the kind of message nobody wants to receive.
Two students at the high school had made a TikTok entitled “Me and the boys on the way to camp." The students held hands and pretended to merrily skip onto a photo of a boxcar headed to the Auschwitz concentration camp. The background music was a happy little rendition of On My Way by Phil Collins.
It’s clear that it’s supposed to be a joke. TC Jewfolk, a Twin Cities area nonprofit, definitely didn’t think it was funny. The organization uploaded the clip to YouTube last week under “Anti-Semitic TikTok.”
“It’s totally out of line, and we have no excuse,” Morrow says. He says the district covers the atrocities of the Holocaust as part of the curriculum – and he feels they do a “great job.” Obviously that's no guarantee it’s taken seriously.
Administrators like Morrow are in charge of kids who have grown up alongside the internet. A lot of the devices issued to students for online work have filters on certain content and functions, but with everything on lockdown to prevent the spread of COVID-19, students are using their family computers at home.
“We can’t control what doesn’t happen at school,” Morrow says.
He got up early on Friday morning to figure out the best way to respond. In the end, he wrote to the students that their video joke had “crossed several lines of decorum” and called it “an affront to our school and community to portray that one could be educated here, and then choose to demonstrate such a callous disregard for the plight of others.”
He also assigned each a 10-page research paper on a different topic. One was “Hitler’s final solution at Auschwitz,” and the other was “Medical experiments at Auschwitz.”
He was very specific on the logistical details of the assignment – how big the margins were supposed to be, how large the font, how many images they were allowed to use. Morrow, a former AP U.S. History teacher, wants some “sweat equity” on this one.
He says both students have submitted written apologies and are working on their research papers. He’s gotten some responses from parents – most “horrified” that this had happened in their community, some “pleased” he hadn’t thrown the students out of school altogether.
Morrow’s approach has gotten a few nods from outside the community as well, including from the director of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Minnesota and the Dakotas, Steve Hunegs.
Hunegs told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency he was “increasingly concerned about a grave empathy deficit” allowing students to turn their knowledge of the Holocaust into an “insult” to the memories of the victims. This, he said, only serves to “further traumatize Jews at a time when we are experiencing a demonstrative rise in anti-Semitism.”
He praised Morrow for the “seriousness” with which he’s approached the incident.
It’s cold comfort for the superintendent, who says to even see the district’s name associated with this behavior brings nothing but “heartache.”