Dispute over Sharpie marks for unvaccinated students at Exeter prom gets out of hand  

  • Lesley Morgan, the widow of former SAU 16 Superintendent Michael Morgan, suggested people better learn how to “agree to disagree” in an appeal for cooler heads to prevail. At one point Morgan stopped to directly address several audience members who were yelling at her. Alexander LaCasse—SeacoastOnline

Monitor staff 
Published: 6/17/2021 12:50:17 PM

Prom night traditions returned this year with fancy dresses, rented tuxedos, dancing and photos. At Exeter High School, this scene also included permanent marker on student’s hands so the school could track who was and wasn’t vaccinated.

Some considered the Sharpie to be a safety measure for contact tracing purposes. Others, viewed the marks – numbers written in black ink on the hands of students who did not show proof they had received a COVID vaccine – to be a violation of freedom. 

Following the prom on June 4, State Rep. Melissa Litchfield, a Brentwood Republican, shared concerns she received from constituents in a Facebook post, including one who compared the school’s actions to Nazi, Germany. 

The person said it was “absolutely unbelievable” that the school was “allowed to treat the kids like prisoners in Nazi Germany. Marking them, thus singling them out, and then having to raise their hands is beyond tolerable,” read the post, with the name redacted by Litchfield. 

By Thursday, Litchfield’s post had garnered 174 shares and 211 comments. 

On Exeter High School’s website, school officials further explained the decision in a public statement posted on June 10. 

“Students who were unable to provide a vaccination card because they did not have or share a card or had not completed the full vaccination process had a number written on their hand,” it said. “During the dancing, after every few songs they were asked to raise their hands to determine who they were around.”

On Monday night, the uproar transitioned from Facebook to Exeter High School’s cafeteria, where the school board held their routine meeting. This joint school board meeting included representatives from the Brentwood, East Kingston, Exeter, Newfields and Stratham school boards.  

This was the first school board meeting since Gov. Chris Sununu lifted the state’s emergency order on Friday, which meant the meeting was held in person, not online. 

And the public showed up, with over 150 people in attendance according to the Union Leader. At the meeting, some called for Superintendent David Ryan’s resignation. 

Helen Joyce, chair of the Exeter school board, said afterward she could not comment on the matter due to an ongoing investigation and referred to a statement that was read at Monday’s meeting. 

“The Board and the Superintendent of Schools had no knowledge of this happening and even several days after the incident, none of our board members, with one exception, received any messages about it from parents. The superintendent's office is gathering facts about it and will report back to us once that investigation is completed,” it said. 

Comparing COVID protocls to Nazi, Germany such as those in Litchfield’s post is not only inaccurate, but also wrongly equates marks on a teenager’s hand at a dance to genocide during a world war, according to Susannah Heschel, the chair of the Jewish Studies Program at Dartmouth College. 

“With a comparison like this does is first of all, what it's trying to say is marking a kid's hand with a Sharpie pen is a terrible, terrible thing, which it isn't. It's not so terrible. Nobody dies from it,” she said. “The horror of that to draw some kind of comparison is absolutely insane. Are children being tortured? Are their lives in danger? Could they be killed at any minute?”

These associations not only antisemitic, but also unpatriotic, Heschel said. 

“It's profoundly offensive. I would say, first of all, to all, all Americans, all citizens of this country, because we went to war. And that needs to be remembered, and our soldiers need to be respected,” she said. “It's profoundly offensive to every Jew. This was the worst thing that could happen to people. And it happened to Jews, my father's generation. So hearing that invoked, is profoundly insulting and offensive, and alienating. And it's as if someone is saying to me, ‘I could care less about you in your life.’”

The marking of hands at the Exeter prom is not the first juxtaposition between modern pandemic restrictions and 1940s Germany. 

In April of last year, police were called to Rollins Park in Concord, to break up a group of parents and children. The park was closed, as signaled by yellow caution tape surrounding the green and purple playset, due to the state’s stay-at-home order.  

After asking the group to leave the park, the officers were referred to as “Concord Nazis.” Rochelle Kelley, a member of the Weare School Board, was one of the playground attendees. 

The comments made in Litchfield’s Facebook post also coincide with a national conversation regarding pandemic and Nazi Germany associations. On Tuesday, Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene issued an apology for her statements comparing the Capitol Hill mask-mandate and the Holocaust, after visiting the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington. 

Last week, in a press conference, Sununu, who is a parent in the school district, addressed the prom contact tracing, along with schools like Londonderry still requiring students to wear masks. 

“Those things absolutely should not have happened,” he said. “And again, if you have a school board that's taking action that you don't agree with, then all those parents need to go vote and vote all those people out. That's the beauty of local control.” 

On Thursday, Ryan issued another statement apologizing for the contact tracing protocol.

“While everyone involved planning the event had the best intentions to provide a fun, safe event for the students, the contact tracing protocol that was put in place could and should have been accomplished in a different manner,” he wrote. “There was never intent to simulate or reprise methods that have caused grief and painful memories, and we apologize for any emotions that this process may have evoked.” 

An internal audit of the protocol began on June 11. Findings will be made to the public when finished. 

In the meantime, Heschel hopes people will understand the fault in their comparisons. And if not, she is happy to help them. 

“If anybody in New Hampshire would like to have a lesson about the history of Nazi Germany in the Holocaust, I will gladly provide them free of charge with a lecture,” she said. 


Michaela Towfighi is a Report for America corps member covering the Two New Hampshires for the Monitor. She graduated from Duke University with a degree in public policy and journalism and media studies in 2022. At Duke she covered education, COVID-19, the 2020 election and helped edit stories about the Durham County Courthouse for The 9th Street Journal and the triangle area's alt-weekly Indy Week. Her story about a family grappling with a delayed trial for a fatal car accident in Concord won first place in Duke’s Melcher Family Award for Excellence in Journalism. Towfighi is an American expat who calls London, England, home despite being born in Boston.

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