EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - An incident that occurred at East Brunswick High School yesterday morning has raised voices, anxiety, and concern among township residents, students, and families. It has also driven many to question the accuracy of what they read on social media, the speed at which some information travels without being checked, and the quickness of online readers to form judgments without facts.
Superintendent Victor Valeski and Board of Education President Vicki Becker met with members of the Muslim Community this afternoon in what Valeski called an "active dialogue" aimed at preventing a recurrence of the type of incident that has caused an uproar in East Brunswick. Valeski asserted in an interview with TAPinto East Brunswick that the district will take "proactive measures," assuring those at the meeting that the bias incident was the action of a single individual who does not represent the student population of East Brunswick High School."
According to Dr. Valeski, who sent a letter to East Brunswick Public Schools stakeholders earlier today, " A disagreement between two students over a seat in a common area at the high school, quickly escalated into an exchange of words and physical altercation." So that's the incident. Two girls fought over a seat in the cafe. However, the verbal interchange also included some anti-Muslim remarks and actions directed at one girl by the other. One girl tore off the hijab worn by the other. Following the event, online posts by one of the girls exhibited racial/religious bias against the other.
Local social media outlets have exploded today with comments that interjected more information from various sources that have not been recognized by the schools or the East Brunswick Police Department. Postings have included racist remarks made by one of the students involved; student narratives of the events; and expressions of outrage.
"Ultimately, " said Valeski, "The fight was determined to be a bias incident and was immediately reported to the East Brunswick Police Department and the County Prosecutor's Office in accordance with Board Policy." (Click here to read Board Policy #8465 in its entirety.) The pertinent portion is this one: "A “bias-related act” is an act directed at a person, group of persons, private property, or public property that is motivated in whole or part by racial, gender, disability, religion or sexual orientation, or ethnic prejudice. A bias-related act need not involve conduct that constitutes a criminal offense. All hate crimes are also bias-related acts, but not all bias-related acts will constitute a hate crime."
Therefore, by BOE Policy, the incident had to be reported to police. However, according to the policy, "It is understood a referral to the East Brunswick Police Department or county prosecutor’s office is only a transmittal of information that might be pertinent to a law enforcement investigation and is not an accusation or formal charge." A report, then, does not necessarily lead to a criminal charge. The first actions of investigation, judgment and punishment will be taken by the East Brunswick Superintendent and building Principal, in this case Dr. Vinella, says the policy.
The Superintendent's letter concluded with a bid for unity and an assurance that the schools remain safe places for students. In 2018, the East Brunswick School District was noted as being in complete compliance with all state directives addressing Harrassment, Intimidation, and Bullying. (Here is the full HIB report and an attachment listing all programs used in the district to support anti-HIB instruction.)
Similarly, Mayor Brad Cohen released a statement this afternoon to the press. (Click here to read the statement in its entirety.) Cohen describes the incident as noted above and adds that an "unequal punishment" was given to both girls based on the use of biased remarks by the person he calls "the perpetrator." He also dispels the rumor that the Muslim student will not walk at graduation. "The Muslim woman and her family have been seen and offered any help necessary from school psychologists and support staff."
Although the incident did not rise to the level designated as a "Hate Crime," Cohen also reported that perpetrator had been arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, harassment, simple assault, and cyber-harassment, a fact authenticated by a press release from the Middlesex County Prosecutor's office this afternoon. (Click here to read the full press release.) Cohen ended his statement by showing support for the Muslim community in East Brunswick and worldwide and by announcing that he will hold a township forum to discuss and debrief the event with details to be published shortly.
The report published by the Prosecutor's office also included the following: "Due to circumstances surrounding the events, the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office and the East Brunswick Police Department are continuing to investigate the incident pursuant to Attorney General Gurbir Grewal’s Bias Incident Investigation Standards." (Click here to read the full standards invesitgation document from the Attorney General's Office.) As good deal of the Standards refer to the necessity to aid and support the victims of bias incidents and to provide community outreach to open communication and reinforce common values. Mayor Cohen has acted as suggested by the document by planning for a district event to address the incident.
According to the Standards, though, it is the responsibility of law enforcement agencies handing the case to "Ensure that a thorough and complete initial response and follow-up investigation are conducted as required by the facts and circumstances surrounding the suspected or confirmed bias incident, which includes providing for appropriate community relations activities and crime prevention programs."
In an interview late this afternoon, Valeski said that he was "proud of the diverse student population who shows respect for each other day in and day out," noting that he was saddened by the "heightened negative tenor of the discourse" among those discussing the event on social media.
The East Brunswick Board of Education meets tonight at 8:00 at the Board Office off Route 18 South. (Click here to read the agenda for tonight's meeting.) TAPinto East Brunswick has been informed by several community members that some residents will address yesterday's event during the public portion of the regular meeting.