Jones Prep principal suspended amid uproar over goose-stepping student in German soldier’s uniform on Halloween

“We should have handled the incident with greater care,” the school’s principal, Joe Powers, told parents in an email earlier Friday.

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Jones College Prep located at 700 South State Street, in The Loop neighborhood, Thursday, Oct. 21, 2021.

Jones College Prep, located at 700 S. State St.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times file photo

The principal at Jones College Prep High School has been suspended and officials have launched an investigation after a student wore a German soldier’s uniform to school on Halloween and goose-stepped onstage during a costume showcase.

The costume caused an uproar because it was widely interpreted to be the garb of a Nazi soldier. Distressed students pointed the costume out to their principal, Joseph Powers, but Powers explained to students the boy was dressed as a Communist-era East German soldier, Powers wrote Monday in a note to staff.

“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.

Parents and students were highly critical of Powers’ response to the incident, leading to Chicago Public Schools CEO Pedro Martinez handing down a suspension until the investigation plays out, saying “there must be accountability when harm occurs.”

“I fully understand why a member of the Jones community coming to school dressed in a German military uniform as a Halloween costume was widely recognized by many students, staff, and members of our broader CPS community as antisemitic,” Martinez wrote in an email to the school community Friday.

“It is completely inconsistent with our values as a school district, and it comes at a time when hateful speech and hateful attacks are on the rise, especially against Jewish Americans,” he said.

A video of the male student goose-stepping during a school Halloween parade — accompanied by a chorus of boos — has since made the rounds on social media.

On Thursday in an email to parents, Powers said the situation should have been handled differently. 

“As more information has come to light, including additional video of the incident and through conversations with our staff and students, we realize that this has greatly impacted our community and acknowledge that we should have handled the incident with greater care and communicated more clearly with the school community about the nature of the incident,” Powers said.

“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 antisemitism. Let me also say clearly and plainly that intolerance, bigotry, and bias-based behaviors have no place in our school,” Powers said.

Cassie Creswell, who has a child at Jones and is a former chair of the Local School Council, said Powers should have immediately made the student change out of the costume and called the student’s parents to have a serious discussion about the situation.

“I’m very concerned,” Creswell said. “I have been tracking the rise in right-wing extremism in the suburbs for a while now, and this is a real thing, and it’s 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.”

Special support staff were scheduled to be at the school this week, and safe spaces would be made available “for students to process the harm they’ve experienced,” Powers said in his email to parents.

On Friday, the Chicago Teachers Union 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,” CTU said in a statement.

A student walkout is planned Monday to protest the handling of racial and ethnic discrimination at the school.

Yamali Rodas, a senior at Jones, plans to participate.

“I’m kind of disappointed in the way that administration has responded,” said Rodas, who heads up the school’s Association of Latin American Students. “They should have set him aside and had a conversation with him about why it was inappropriate.”

A CPS spokesman earlier Friday said in an email that, “Halloween celebrations are intended to build a sense of community and not cause bias-based harm. School and District leaders are working together to address this matter and will inform the Jones community of any updates.”

It’s not the first time Powers has found himself in a controversial situation at Jones, an elite selective-enrollment school in the South Loop.

He survived an effort to oust him earlier this year by the local school council, which is partly composed of parents.

Earlier this year, several members of the group, including Creswell, alleged that Powers violated the district’s residency requirement by maintaining a primary home in Missouri, failed to properly handle teacher misconduct complaints and fostered an unwelcoming environment for students and staff of color and transgender and gender nonconforming students.

In April, CPS CEO Pedro Martinez said of its investigation of the matter: “There is insufficient evidence of misconduct by Mr. Powers at this time on which to base an action for involuntary dismissal.”

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