The photographer who took a picture of Wisconsin high school boys giving what appears to be a Nazi salute has said he simply asked the students to wave goodbye to their parents.
Pete Gust told community journalism website Madison 365 that the pre-prom photo at Baraboo High School, which has been shared widely on social media, was innocent.
He said he asked the boys to give him a "high-five" for the photo, taken in May on the steps of the Sauk County Courthouse in Baraboo, about 115 miles north-west of Milwaukee.
Mr Gust has removed the photo from his website, Wheel Memories, where it had been posted since May, and wrote: "To anyone that was hurt I sincerely apologise."
The Baraboo School District and police are investigating the photo.
The Baraboo Police Department is aware of a controversial photo of a group of high school students that has been posted to social media. Officers are assisting the Baraboo School District with their investigation into this matter.— Baraboo PD (@BarabooPD) November 12, 2018
Mr Gust, who has a son in the photo, said he understood why his photo offended some people.
About two thirds of the boys have their right arms raised in the gesture.
"The optics aren't good," Mr Gust told The Associated Press.
However, one of the students in the photo who did not raise his arm, Jordan Blue, said he believes some of the students did intend to make the Nazi salute as a joke.
Mr Blue told the Baraboo News Republic: "It was very disrespectful to what my beliefs are, and it was a very bad representation of the senior class and the Baraboo School District, because by all means, the Baraboo School District does not support that kind of actions and it is a district that provides many opportunities for the students.
"This is something that I will never forget."
Yes, I am #JordanBlue.. Thank you all for all the love support and all of the positive messages.— jordan blue ❁ (@jtbluee) November 12, 2018
Mr Gust took the photo down on Monday and posted an apology after it surfaced in social media posts and was shared widely, prompting strong criticism from individuals and from Jewish organisations.
District Superintendent Lori Mueller said in a letter to parents: "If the gesture is what it appears to be, the district will pursue any and all available and appropriate actions, including legal, to address the issue."
At the Baraboo School Board meeting on Monday night about half a dozen speakers addressed the matter.
Baraboo School Board president Kevin Vodak, stressing that he was speaking as a private citizen, said the photo "deeply disappointed me, shamed, appalled and angered me".
The Baraboo School District sent the following letter to parents this afternoon in response to a photo circulating on social media. pic.twitter.com/0IXNUdLeRD— School District of Baraboo (@OnwardBSD) November 12, 2018
He added: "The photo has shaken to the core my personal belief of the process that we as a community and as a school district have made to be tolerant, inclusive, accepting and admitting of all of those who are different from ourselves."
Earlier, about 100 people gathered near the courthouse for a rally which organisers said was aimed at sending a positive message about Baraboo, a community of 12,000 people.
Organiser Sherri Schaaf said: "The point is to show Baraboo is about love."
The Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum in Poland was among those criticising the photo on social media.
The museum tweeted: "This is why every single day we work hard to educate. We need to explain what is the danger of hateful ideology rising."