A New Jersey school district is looking for answers after a photo with Muslim students replaced a Jewish group in a yearbook

An investigation is underway after seniors at East Brunswick High School in New Jersey received yearbooks this week with a Jewish Student Union photo replaced by a photo of Muslim students, the superintendent said.

“We were made aware that in yearbooks, distributed only to Seniors, the Jewish Student Union is accompanied by a photograph that is not associated with them in any way,” East Brunswick Public Schools Superintendent Victor Valeski posted on Facebook Wednesday. “Additionally, names of members of the Jewish Student Union were not published.”

The school board has retained private legal counsel to investigate after the superintendent’s own probe into the yearbook incident, Valeski told CNN on Friday.

“I did an initial internal investigation,” Valeski wrote in an email to CNN. “I found, at a minimum, gross (negligence) in the proof review procedure before going to print.”

It’s not clear who might have removed the photo and names of the Jewish Student Union members and replaced them with a photo showing members of the school’s Muslim Student Association.

East Brunswick Mayor Brad Cohen called the incident a “blatant Anti-Semitic act.”

“The action resulted in a picture of Muslim students replacing the original photograph of the Jewish students,” the mayor posted on Facebook.

He called on school officials to answer a litany of questions, including how the incident happened, who was responsible and how perpetrators would be held accountable.

On Thursday night, the school board announced an independent group will investigate.

The private counsel started working on the case Friday, and it’s unclear when findings will be completed.

Student gets threats ‘calling me a terrorist’

The superintendent apologized on behalf of the East Brunswick Board of Education “for the hurt, pain and anguish this event has caused our Jewish students, their families and the impact this continues to have on the entire EB community.”

“We do not tolerate bias and we investigate all reported antisemitism,” Valeski posted on Facebook.

The Jewish Federation in the Heart of New Jersey demanded facts and accountability after it learned of “alterations of photos and names of Jewish students that, while under investigation, appear on their surface may be deliberate and malicious - and if not, then certainly negligent.”

Charlotte Friedman, president of the school’s Jewish Club, said “it feels as if our identity as Jewish students has been symbolically erased.”

“Over the past 48 hours, I have lost sleep and hours studying for my final exams,” Friedman said at a school board meeting Thursday night. “I am worried that there are classmates at EBHS who hate or mock Jewish club members just because we are Jewish.”

But it’s not just Jewish students suffering from the yearbook incident.

“I’ve personally seen death threats on social media, calling me a terrorist,” a Muslim student identified as Zain told CNN affiliate News 12 New Jersey.

The Muslim Student Association “had no involvement in this, yet we have become the face of the whole incident because our faces weren’t even blurred out before the photo was posted on social media,” MSA Vice President Ali Salama said in a statement provided by the Council on American–Islamic Relations’ New Jersey office.

Zain expressed sympathy for the Jewish community and described the Islamophobia he’s endured since seeing his face in the misplaced photo.

“I want to offer my condolences to the Jewish community for the pain that they have suffered for the yearbook situation, and I hope that they are able to get their picture back into the yearbook after this is resolved,” Zain said at Thursday’s school board meeting.

“I was one of the students in the mislabeled yearbook photo, and I want to speak on behalf of myself and the MSA for the abhorrent Islamophobia that we endured during this event.” He cited posts on social media that “compared me to a member of the KKK in Klan attire” and called “for my deportation.”

Seniors at East Brunswick High School received their yearbooks on Tuesday. - NEWS 12 NEW JERSEY LLC
Seniors at East Brunswick High School received their yearbooks on Tuesday. - NEWS 12 NEW JERSEY LLC

Another student at the meeting said MSA members “have been unjustly blamed” and subjected to online abuse. The high school junior questioned the differing responses to the Jewish community and the Muslim community.

“Over the past few days, all we have heard about is how hurt the Jewish community is and how everyone is rallying to support them. While we deeply empathize with their pain, it raises a critical question: When will it be our turn?” he said. “We need assurance that our voices are heard, our concerns are addressed and that we, too, are given the support and protection we so desperately need.”

In a later Facebook post, the superintendent acknowledged Muslim students had also felt backlash.

“As I mentioned impacts to our Jewish students and families earlier today, I want to offer sincere apologies to our Muslim students and families, as well,” Valeski wrote Wednesday. “I am aware that the picture placed in the yearbook has caused pain for our Muslim students and for that I am deeply sorry.”

What happens next

While the investigation continues, seniors who received yearbooks have been asked to return them so that the errant page can be replaced.

The school district has been working with the publisher to reproduce the yearbook page, and printing has already started, Valeski said. The new page will include a photo of the actual Jewish Student Union and the names of the club’s members.

Underclassmen had not yet received their yearbooks and will get corrected versions, the superintendent said.

“We do not have all the facts but I will report to the community once I do,” Valeski wrote in his initial Facebook post. “I urge the East Brunswick community … to give me the opportunity to determine the cause and I simply ask individuals and organizations to slow their rush to judgment.”

For more CNN news and newsletters create an account at CNN.com