A new debate is kicking off in the Fullerton School District over whether or not to include Nazi symbols in the “Sound of Music” play, while also raising censorship concerns.

This week, Nazi symbols and swastikas will not be present as 6th graders at Rolling Hills Elementary school perform the play because Fullerton School District officials say the images could be used in a negative manner.

“Having a sixth grader dressed up in Nazi regalia, surrounded by swastikas, and saying Heil Hitler –  the Superintendent felt that this was inappropriate for maybe a kindergarten or first grader to see without any real context,” said Aaruni Thakur, president of the district school board. 

Thakur said he supports District Superintendent Robert Pletka’s decision to remove the Nazi symbols. 

“I’m actually specifically concerned that Neo-Nazis would take an image that a parent posted of the kids in swastikas, with a flag in the background, with their hands in the air, and then somehow use that image in a way that disparages that child,”  Pletka said in a Friday phone interview.

The play about Maria, a young governess and nun in training, who is sent to work for the von Trapp family in pre-World War II Austria amid the rise of Nazi influence, was popularized in a 1965 film adaptation starring actors Julie Andrews and Christopher Plummer.

Now, some parents are asking if younger students are ready to be exposed to Nazi symbols or if they’re too young to understand the grim history of the Holocaust perpetrated by Nazi Germany.

Other parents raised censorship concerns and don’t want educators shying away from having difficult conversations with kids on historical events like the Holocaust.

The Holocaust was orchestrated by Adolf Hitler and Nazi Germany over 70 years ago when the Nazis tortured and killed at least 6 million Jews during World War II. 

Trustee Ruthi Hanchett said in a Thursday email the school board was not part of the decision, but following concerns raised by parents at last week’s meeting she wants to establish a new policy.

“At the end of the meeting, I suggested and my board agreed to work on a policy or procedural framework for considering and making decisions about similar topics and situations in the future,” she wrote.

Pletka said complaints from parents had nothing to do with his decision.

Thakur also said he worries parents would take photos of their kids in Nazi gear or doing a Nazi salute.

Censorship and Transparency Concerns

Pletka’s decision to remove Nazi symbols in the performances sparked a debate at the Fullerton School District board meeting last week, with some parents raising concerns of censorship and a lack of transparency and communication over the district’s actions.

At the meeting, parent Lisa Lobito said the decision to censor the play was made after some parents complained over hearing about an incident on the playground where kids gave the Nazi salute.

“The action in and of itself is heinous, but at the very least, deserves a conversation,” she said about the Nazi salute. 

Lobito said she’s concerned censoring the play will set a precedent in the district, which could mean removing material parents are uncomfortable with. 

Pletka refused to comment on that incident, but said some of the younger students were scared the play was about killing Jewish people.

Some parents like Patty Adams, an air force veteran who is Jewish, have different concerns than Lobito.

“I care about my eight year old. I care about my kindergartner. I want them to learn the right things at the right time,” she said. “I think we’re moving in the right direction.”

Hope Molina-Porter, a parent and teacher in the Fullerton Joint Union High School District, said at Tuesday’s meeting that she worried the district was “bending to revision rather than resilience” and did not see the play as a threat.

“Nazis are a part of our history and they are neither celebrated, nor glorified, in any part of this musical – whether on Broadway or a sixth grade performance,” Molina-Porter said.

“The day the district starts excluding kids from a performance like this one is the day I start seeing the district’s decisions as a threat.”

John Goldman, a father, said when he came home to his 8-year-old and 6-year-olds talking about Nazis, it forced a conversation Jewish parents have with their children that other parents don’t. 

“Our kids grow up earlier than other kids because of things like the Holocaust, because of things like Nazis,” he said.

“The simulation of Nazis in a not an age-appropriate situation actually hurts the way kids learn about those things, the way they internalize that information.”

The debate in Fullerton comes during a rise in anti-semitism in Orange County.

In March, the Anti-Defamation League reported 55 anti-semitic incidents in OC and Long Beach in 2022, including 2 assaults – the most ever recorded in the region. The group also reported a record high increase in anti-semitism in the state and across the country.

Cal State Fullerton Professor and Jewish parent Alissa Ackerman said she knows what it’s like to grow up facing anti-semitism and said what happened on the playground was a teachable moment.

“What we teach in Jewish education is to never forget. And what we’ve just taught, is that we just don’t say the word Hitler. So what’s going to happen a generation from now with these students is, ‘Oh, what was that guy’s name? Oh, he was just an evil German leader?’” she said. 

“No, his name was Hitler. And he was a Nazi.”

How Will the District Handle Future Plays? 

In a Tuesday phone interview, Thaku said he can see the issue from both points of view.

“If we edit the play for the younger students, some parents may correctly feel that this is an error,” he said.

“If we allow the play to continue, I can also imagine some parents stating why show kindergarteners and first graders, their fellow students in these outfits doing these actions without any proper context.”

Linda McNutt, principal of Rolling Hills, deferred comment to the Superintendent’s office while Trustee Hilda Sugarman deferred comment to McNutt.

Trustees Leonel Talavera did not respond to a request for comment.

Following the public comments at last Tuesday’s meeting, Pletka said he’d go to Rolling Hills the next day and speak with parents.

“As we move forward on this, we want to be respectful, we want to be inclusive, we want to create a sense of community and belonging,” he said.

Thakur said in a phone interview he’d be open to discuss the decision and whether these changes will remain in future productions of the play at Rolling Hills if there is interest from community members for the board to do so.

Trustee Beverly Berryman said in a Wednesday email that she will use this situation as a learning experience.

“We certainly do not want our parents and community to feel like there was no transparency or communication and may need to establish a better way to approach this if needed in the future,” she wrote.

Abigail Stephens contributed to the reporting in this article.

Hosam Elattar is a Voice of OC reporter and corps member with Report for America, a GroundTruth initiative. Contact him at helattar@voiceofoc.org or on Twitter @ElattarHosam.


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