She says it was an “OK” sign.
Others say it was a symbol of white supremacy.
Although the discrepancy was never resolved, a high school student was expelled from her cooperative hospital location after displaying the gesture in a social media photo.
“I didn’t mean to be racist and it wouldn’t happen again,” says Megan Breeze, a senior at Sherwood Secondary. “I thought it means ‘OK’. As a sign of approval ”.
Megan, 17, wants to be a child psychologist. So it was a great opportunity to learn about health care when she was accepted into a cooperative program at Juravinski Hospital at the beginning of the school year.
A teacher at her school interviewed her for the position.
Along with students from other schools, she spent three weeks in a classroom learning about hospital cleaning, basic care, and COVID protocols before she was able to work in customer service and between patients in general medicine.
Most of all, Megan cleaned things. But sometimes he was able to interact with patients.
“It was great,” she says. “I was very excited. I really wanted to do that cooperative.”
To capture their accomplishments and promote the program, Megan’s teacher took photos of the students doing their homework and took group photos of the teens.
In one of those images, a selfie of the teacher with four students in the background, Megan’s hand is on her leg, her index finger pressed against her thumb, her other fingers pointing toward the floor. Another student is making a peace sign.
The teacher posted the photo on a public Instagram account. She did not notice any concern. Megan says she made the same gesture in some other photos as well.
Five years ago, that hand signal wouldn’t have caused a stir. Most would have recognized and accepted it as an OK sign, albeit in reverse.
That was then.
Today, some see it as a symbol of hatred.
In 2019, the Anti-Defamation League, a US Jewish civil rights organization, added the hand sign to its “Hate on display” database.
The ADL said it was acknowledging that the sign had been co-opted by the far right and had become a symbol of white supremacy.
Also in the database: the “Hitler salute”.
The ADL says the OK sign It is used in extremist online message boards, such as 4chan and 8chan, to promote hatred.
It started with far-right sympathizers who took pictures of famous people with the OK sign and posted them as memes, stating it was a nod to white supremacy.
But soon, true white supremacists were wearing the symbol. For example, the white supremacist from Christchurch, New Zealand, who killed 51 worshipers in mosques, displayed the gesture during a court appearance.
The symbol’s hateful new meaning may be obvious to some, but probably obscure to most.
In Hate on Display, the ADL says that “the overwhelming use of the ‘ok’ hand gesture today remains its traditional purpose as a gesture signifying assent or approval. As a result, someone using the symbol cannot be assumed to be using it in a … context of white supremacy unless there is other contextual evidence to support the claim … Many people have been falsely accused of being racists or supremacists targets for using the gesture ‘good’ in its traditional and innocuous sense. “
It certainly seems reasonable and prudent to acknowledge that context is important.
But that didn’t seem like an option for Megan.
After a few days in the cooperative program, her parents received a call from the Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board telling them that she should not go to the hospital, but that she should go to school for a meeting.
Her dad went with her to that meeting. They were told that they were going to remove her from her location because someone had complained about her hand signal. And she was in danger of being suspended.
“They said it was a racist sign,” Megan says. “I did not know, I did not know it”.
He says he tried not to cry during the meeting.
“They accused me of being a racist.”
They did not tell him who filed the complaint. She was not suspended and was told that the complaint will not appear on her academic record. But he is prohibited from being in the Juravinski Hospital.
“They didn’t give me much information, except that they kicked me out of my cooperative.”
A hospital spokesperson says the initial complaint reached Hamilton Health Sciences.
HHS was “informed of a student’s online postings that could have been construed as contrary to HHS’s values-based code of conduct,” Wendy Stewart said in an emailed response to The Spectator.
“We informed the school board when we learned of the posts in early October. Since the photographs in the postings were taken on HHS sites, we act decisively to emphasize that we expect all persons who visit our sites, regardless of whether they are employees, patients, visitors, or vendors, to conduct themselves in a manner that ensures everyone at HHS feels respected, safe and welcome. “
An email from school board spokesperson Shawn McKillop reads: “A community member noticed an unacceptable symbol in a social media post and reported it to HWDSB and program partner Hamilton Health Sciences. The symbol, which can be construed as promoting hate, does not align with HWDSB’s commitment to fairness and inclusion. Hate symbols that promote racism or the ideology of white supremacy are not tolerated at HWDSB or anywhere in our community. The image was immediately removed. “
McKillop says other details of the situation are “confidential” but adds that “staff take the time to help students understand their actions.”
If she didn’t know before, Megan certainly knows now how her hand gesture can be interpreted and what the consequences are.
But many questions remain.
She or should she have known better? Are we all expected to know that an OK sign now is not okay? Was Megan given a chance to learn and repair the damage? Did the punishment fit the crime?
This was an auspicious time for teaching. And the hospital and the board of education failed.
Susan Clairmont is a Hamilton-based criminal, judicial and social justice columnist for The Spectator. Contact her by email: [email protected]