New York City Schools Chancellor Joel I. Klein vowed that he “won’t tolerate any harassment based on race, religion, or gender in our schools,” following last week’s arrest of a 15-year-old Asian student for assault on an 18-year-old Sikh classmate at Richmond Hill High School.
The assailant allegedly punched his classmate with a key held between his knuckles during class on Tuesday, June 3 according to reports.
The 15-year-old was arrested by the hate crimes division of the New York Police Department (NYPD) and charged with assault in the second degree and harassment, according NYPD officials.
Before the attack, he apparently tried to untie the patka (small turban) of the 18-year-old Sikh student, Jagmohan Singh Premi, according to the Sikh Coalition.
When Premi tried to fix his patka, the suspect reportedly punched him in the face. Premi suffered a facial contusion and a possible orbital fracture of his left eye as a result of the attack.
“I have spoken with the student and his father and assured them that this incident will be investigated and that I am committed to providing him a safe learning environment,” Klein said at a press conference on Friday, June 6, attended by the victim and the outraged Sikh community.
“It’s kind of sickening that we have to have these kinds of press conferences,” said Sharon Lee, a spokesperson for City Councilmember John Liu. “Inaction reinforces the behavior. It’s almost like they’re saying it is okay to harass fellow students,” she said.
The suspect has a history of harassing Premi, the Sikh Coalition said. He pulled on Premi’s beard, squeezed his hair knot and teased him about his patka and hair.
“He had gone to school authorities multiple times to let them know he was being harassed,” Lee said. “Because it wasn’t addressed, it escalated into an attack.”
The Sikh Coalition listed Richmond Hill High School as a “problem school” in an April report. They say Sikh students have been victims of harassment there before including one incident last year in which a student cut off the waist-length hair of a Sikh pupil.
Lee said that schools have done nothing to track incidents involving bias. However, Debra Wexler, a spokesperson for the Department of Education (DOE), said schools have been tracking these kinds of incidents.
“The Department of Education does not tolerate bullying or harassment in any form,” said Wexler. “Our discipline code clearly spells out infractions for acts of bullying, we have implemented prevention and intervention training for administrators, and we use anti-bullying curricula in the classroom.”
Now, after this latest incident, the DOE will strengthen its efforts to track bullying and harassment, Klein vowed. “Because addressing and preventing bias crimes in school is a priority, I recently ordered the drafting of a new Chancellor’s regulation that incorporates recommendations from the Sikh Coalition. As part of this effort, we are also expanding our incident reporting system to comprehensively track bias-related incidents in our schools beginning in September.”
Amardeep Singh, Executive Director of the Sikh Coalition, is concerned that the measures might be made behind closed doors and without public scrutiny. “We might not be totally happy” with the reforms, he said. “I hope there’s more transparency in the process.”
But for Premi, the reforms have come too late. “I am sad this is happening in America,” he said. “I want to go to school to learn.”