Thursday, April 21, 2016

‘Racist’ Drinking Game Causes Uproar at High School in New Jersey

At first, Jamaica Ponder, 17, was “confused” by the image on her phone screen: It depicted some of her classmates at Princeton High School in New Jersey playing “Jews vs. Nazis,” a variation of the drinking game known as beer pong.

The photo she saw on the social media app Snapchat showed students pouring beer into plastic cups arranged in the shapes of a swastika and the Star of David at the ends of a Ping-Pong table. Beer cans formed a wall in the middle.

“I didn’t understand how people who go to my school, which I consider to be open and accepting, could engage in such heinous activity,” Ms. Ponder, a junior, said in an interview on Sunday. “I knew these kids. We go to the same parties; we’re in the same leadership groups. I was appalled.”

Ms. Ponder took a screen shot of the photo a week ago and called the game “racist” and “insane” on her blog Wednesday. The ensuing uproar brought a wave of media attention, roiling Princeton, a quiet, wooded university town between New York City and Philadelphia.

The Princeton police are investigating. The staff at the high school, which has 1,640 students, is meeting with the game’s players as well as student leaders. The Board of Education issued a statement saying, “Princeton Public Schools does not tolerate prejudices of any kind.”

In the stark light of television cameras, Ms. Ponder and the game players have become targets for some people’s anger, according to a school official. Ms. Ponder said that many of her classmates have felt her comments were “too harsh” and put the school in a poor light, prompting a few to try to plan a rally with the theme “Seeing the Good.”

Abby Santizo, a sophomore at the school, said on Sunday that students were so divided over the issue that they had taken to calling it “P.H.S.’s civil war.” Most believe the game was wrong, she said, but many also say that Ms. Ponder should have blurred the players’ faces in the photo, or tried to handle it within the school, rather than on a public blog. Those students fear that the publicity may hurt the players’ standing with their sports teams and their chances of getting into college. “I think that what she did with the posting was good,” Ms. Santizo said. “It just exploded way too quickly. It should’ve been handled within the school.”

Ms. Ponder said she had also received messages of support “from people across the nation.” She said the school administration was doing “all it can.”

“Putting the picture on social media means that someone was proud enough of the game to want to show it off,” she wrote in her blog post. “Meaning that they must be trapped in the delusional mindset that making a drinking game based off of the Holocaust is cool. Or funny. Or anything besides insane. Because that’s what this is: insanity.”

She added, “I’m not even Jewish and I’m still offended.”

There were reports two years ago of students playing what is known variously as Holocaust pong, Alcoholocaust and Jews vs. Nazis at Cape Coral High School in Florida and at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where anti-Semitic vandalism had been reported.

But the high school boys who crowded into a Princeton basement for the game included Jewish students, according to Ms. Ponder, who said they helped set it up but did not participate.

Last week, Steve Cochrane, superintendent of the Princeton public school system, issued his own statement deploring that “some of our students chose to engage in a drinking game with clearly anti-Semitic overtones and to broadcast their behavior over social media.”

“An incident such as this one,” he said, “forces us to take a hard look at our efforts in educating our children in the values that may be most important to their success in life.”

Andrea L. Spalla, president of the Board of Education and the parent of a high school student, said her initial reaction was one of “dismay.” “But,” she added, “also of fear. All of the students involved are now, because of the publicity, targets of other people’s anger.”

Ms. Ponder said she disagreed sharply with those who would play down the behavior.

“I completely reject the notion that this should be excused by the notion ‘Boys will be boys,’ or ‘This is teenagers being stupid,’” she said on Sunday. “This didn’t pop up overnight. Their privilege is blinding them to the problem at hand. They are student leaders. By acting this way, not only are they hurting the school, they are hurting the community.”

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