A New Jersey school district has vowed to review its policy toward school fights after a Muslim student and her alleged attacker were both disciplined for an altercation on school grounds last week.
Middlesex County authorities announced charges of simple assault, harassment, cyber harassment and disorderly conduct Thursday against a student accused of fighting with another student at East Brunswick High School on Wednesday.
The altercation began as an argument over a seat in a common area and escalated quickly, according to the school. The charged student attempted to pull off her Muslim classmate’s hijab during the fight, The Associated Press reports.
The alleged attacker also posted an “inflammatory” statement on Snapchat, the town’s mayor, Brad Cohen, said in a statement. That post helped investigators identify the altercation as a “bias incident,” although it did not rise to the level of a hate crime, NJ.com reported.
“It truly saddens me that we are even having this discussion, especially given the circumstances that occurred in New Zealand such a short time ago. Bias, in any form, is unacceptable in this community and it is simply NOT who we are or what we stand for,” Cohen said.
A family member of the alleged attacker told Pix 11 on Thursday that the teen is a “good kid” and “not racist.”
East Brunswick’s board of education has a “zero tolerance” policy toward fighting in schools. Administrators are able to discipline both parties involved in a physical altercation ― even if one of them was fighting in self-defense. There may be a different outcome if a student who is attacked backs away and calls on school officials to intervene instead of engaging in the fight, superintendent Victor Valeski said.
Both of the students involved in this fight were suspended, Valeski confirmed to HuffPost. The Muslim student has already returned to class, he said.
A third student who recorded the fight and posted it on social media was also disciplined for violating a school policy that prohibits students from posting unauthorized photographs of classmates and staff, according to Valeski.
Some East Brunswick High School students were upset that their Muslim classmate was suspended for the fight. Thousands of people signed an online petition calling for changes to school district policy.
“She’s really nice, everyone loves her,” Gabrielle Goins, an East Brunswick High School student told CBS New York about the Muslim student. “Why is someone suspended if she’s defending herself?”
In this case, school officials used security footage to determine that there was indeed a fight, Valeski said. But since the investigation is ongoing, he said he couldn’t confirm whether the Muslim student was fighting in self-defense.
James Sues, executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, told HuffPost that the Muslim student’s family is “somewhat satisfied” with how the school and the police have handled the incident. Sues said he has spoken to the student’s family but that CAIR-NJ is not representing them in a legal capacity.
The school has erased the suspension from the Muslim student’s record, Sues told HuffPost. Valeski was unable to confirm this, telling HuffPost that he couldn’t share specific information regarding student matters.
Sues said he hopes “students that are attacked and take steps to defend themselves are not suspended for that.”
Cohen, the town’s mayor, said in his statement that the alleged attacker had received a “far worse” punishment than the other student.
On Thursday, a board of education meeting attracted dozens of community members who expressed frustration about the incident. The board and Valeski announced a “comprehensive review” of the zero tolerance policy and its future applications on Friday.
“The Board and Dr. Valeski share the community’s collective desire to foster an environment throughout our Township and our schools that promotes unity and inclusion and celebrates East Brunswick’s extraordinary diversity,” the board of education said in its statement.