The use of a Hindu swastika for a school email profile picture by Kolby LaMarche, a Burlington High School freshman, has prompted his peers to circulate a petition requesting administration to require him to take it down.
The petition claims that the image violates the cyber image policy included in the school’s student handbook.
“Inappropriate postings include, but are not exclusive to: derogatory or threatening language/images that interfere with a student’s access to education; malicious or inflammatory language/images,” reads page 22 of the document.
The Register first reported on the image used on LaMarche’s school district email account this December. The swastika has drawn backlash from community members for its resemblance to the Nazi swastika. The symbols are very similar. The swastika is tilted with four dots, and the Nazi swastika is straight with legs bent at a 90 degree angle.
Nazi’s had used the symbol because it had been used earlier by a superior race, the Aryans, which were also ancestors of the Germans, according to the Holocaust Teacher Resource Center.
Principal Tracy Racicot declined to comment on the issue last Friday.
In a mid-December interview with The Register, Racicot said the situation had been addressed, including the removal of the icon, but would not provide additional details.
“Typically with racial epithets, he’s doing it to get attention,” said Chaim Lodish, a BHS math teacher.
Sophomore Josh Scheidt, who signed the petition, has a similar view of the situation.
“It is inflammatory, but I don’t think he’s doing it to be offensive. He’s doing it more to draw attention to himself,” Scheidt said.
The Register received a letter from LaMarche on May 3, explaining his use of the swastika. In the statement, LaMarche writes that the Burlington community has misinterpreted his intent and the meaning of the symbol.
“The attempts made to educate students and attempts on the true meaning of the symbol, which has always been my soul intent [sic], has been blocked by a high level of bigotry and I hasten to add, an utter disregard for life’s educational moments,” LaMarche wrote.
Rabbi James Glazier of the Sinai Temple in Burlington agrees it is good to educate others, but says LaMarche may have a different intent.
“If he was trying to teach ancient religious symbols, that’s fine, but he probably wouldn’t be starting with one as inflammatory,” Glazier said.
“The more reaction he gets the more he feels empowered.” Rabbi James Glazier said.
Glazier does not agree with the use of the symbol in schools.
“It would be like a menorah kicker,” Glazier said.
He thinks it’s best to leave the topic alone.
On May 19, LaMarche agreed to an interview via email.
“The Hindu swastika is thousands of years old and continues to be a symbol of well-being and good fortune for many cultures and many millions of people. I chose it as my profile picture four years ago, while studying its history and learning about Hinduism, because of its positive symbolism,” LaMarche wrote in answer to why he chose this symbol.
Susan Blethen, an English language learning teacher, said the student is trying to express his beliefs through a religious symbol.
“I think someone trying to be so clever to do that is like Trumpism,” Blethen said. “I think it’s a symbol of hate, and I think hiding behind the skirts of another culture to project your hate is wrong.”
LaMarche did not respond to an emailed question asking if he practiced Hinduism.
Blethen said that if the student does not practice the religion, nor go to temple, she “has a real problem with it.”
“Hindu culture is about good trumping evil,” Blethen said.
LaMarche finds Blethen’s point-of-view cynical.
“I find it ironic that someone who claims to be a teacher would ignorantly dismiss the long, rich, and positive history of this symbol for the chance to indulge in misplaced, moral preening,” LaMarche wrote.
Rich Nadworny, a parent of a BHS student, believes the image should be taken down.
“It’s not a free speech issue,” he said. “It’s a matter of this is a symbol that is deemed offensive and harmful by other students.”
Senior Rebecca Berlind said that the symbol’s meaning has changed over the years. She was one of 82 community members to sign the petition.
“I think that the reality is that in a constantly changing system, symbols take on new meaning and it feels like, very disingenuous to play this symbol off as promoting peace when that’s not how really anyone would view it,” Berlind said.
Thomas Borchert, an Asian Studies professor at the University of Vermont, confirmed that the symbol used is the Hindu swastika. He agrees that the symbol’s meaning has changed.
“Swastikas have a clear meaning in contemporary US society. Even if the student doesn’t mean it negatively, that it is upsetting is reasonable,” Borchert said.
Borchert said that knowing the student’s background is necessary in this situation.
Matt McDermott, director of communications at the American Hindu Association, supported LaMarche’s right to use the symbol.
“I would say the person should not be made to take it down. It’s freedom of speech. While recognizing it’s a sensitive issue, it shouldn’t be taken down,” McDermott said.
He said that the original use of the swastika should not be thrown away because of “a small part of our history.”
“If he had come from an Asian background, this would have been a reasonable thing,” Bochert said.
Nadworny is worried about why the administration has not made LaMarche take the image down.
“I’m concerned, alarmed about the district’s lack of response to this,” Nadworny said. “What bothers me most is that the principal has been so lax and neglectful in handling this.”
The Hindu American Association describes on their website that a Washington University student was reported for displaying the Hindu swastika at his fraternity. Many students petitioned the university’s president, asking administration not to expel the student and to teach him the meaning of the image.
“We wanted to ensure that any Hindu, Buddhist, or Jain student who sought to display the symbol as a part of her faith would not be punished for doing so,” said Samir Kalra, the organization’s senior director.
Lodish believes it would be easy to have every student have a picture of himself as their profile picture.
“If our administration wants to step up and say you know what, all of our campus pictures should actually represent students, and not a student’s personality, then I think that’s the right approach that administration should take. Have I seen administration do that? No. That way they don’t have to single him out,” Lodish said. “It would be a lot easier that if I had the picture of my student in my Canvas rather than a starburst twinkle toes.”
Sophomore Halle Newman, the creator of the online petition, declined a request for an interview with the Register. The document, which was shared and circulated through Google Docs and email, has since been closed for public viewing.
Editors note: An earlier version of this article contained an incorrect spelling of Rabbi Glazier’s name, as well as a grammatical error. These issues have been fixed, and we apologize for the mistake.