EAST BRUNSWICK, NJ - Almost 400 residents, concerned citizens, Islamic advocates, and students crowded the halls of the Board of Education offices last night to speak out following a bias incident that occurred at East Brunswick High School on Wednesday. On that morning, two female students got into a verbal confrontation that initially was a matter of "who sits where" in the school cafeteria. The argument quickly escalated to a physical altercation, with one student pulling the hijab of the other while shouting racist epithets and anti-Muslim remarks. Afterward, on social media, the aggressor continued the conflict by posting anti-Muslim statements and images.
Yesterday, both girls were suspended according to the district's "Zero Tolerance" policy. According to Lawyers.com, "A zero-tolerance policy requires school officials to hand down specific, consistent, and harsh punishment—usually suspension or expulsion—when students break certain rules. The punishment applies regardless of the circumstances, the reasons for the behavior (like self-defense), or the student’s history of discipline problems. That’s why some critics call these policies “one strike and you’re out.”
The case was deemed a "bias Incident" and referred by the schools to the East Brunswick Police Department, who then worked with the Middlesex County Prosecutor's Office, as required by law, to determine if there would be charges filed. By the end of the day, the Prosecutor's office had charged the aggressor with several counts, including simple assault and cyber-harassment. Neither student attended school yesterday due to their suspension.
Those who attended the meeting had major concerns that they addressed to the Board in a three-hour public segment during which citizens each had five minutes to voice their thoughts. After a few initial complaints about the size of the meeting venue, which Board Attorney Matt Giacobbe said could not have been changed on such short notice, most comments centered on several specific ideas: the impact of social media on the lives of students and its ability to mislead or misinform the public; the role of the hijab in the life of a Muslim woman; the ineffective role of school security officers at EBHS; and the Zero Tolerance policy which punishes victims and aggressors the same way.
Stories flew on the internet yesterday, and those who spoke reflected the fear that comes from misinformation. One speaker said, "As Muslims, we do not seek revenge. We are concerned for the perpetrator student who is receiving death threats. "Where's the integrity?" he asked. "We really care about both of the students. We are here for them all. We have to teach empathy"
Other speakers noted that social media "has played a huge part. There are many rumors." It was suggested that the e-mails and message from the administration are too vague, thereby adding to the confusion. Some viewed the lack of clarity by the administration as a way of minimizing incidents or "sweeping them under the rug," a phrase which was used several times during the public portion of the meeting.
Many referenced a video made by a student of the assault, adding that the student who made the cell phone recording has also been suspended for putting it on the internet. It is against school policy for students to record fights and publish the recordings. However, some speakers claimed that, had the video not appeared, there would not have been so much light shone on the case.
Hijab wearers or "hijabis" were numerous among the speakers and many spoke of the personal choice a young woman makes when she chooses to wear the traditional headscarf. Many had been warned that it would make them become a target for Islamaphobia. They were affronted by the hijab having been pulled off the student's head and explained the significance of the scarf: "A hijab is the dignity of a Muslim woman." One man said that the student "might has well have been completely naked" because the garment was so important to the teenager as a sign of modesty and carried such meaning. The President of the East Brunswick Muslim Student Association said, "I woke up this morning and decided about my hijab. Now it makes me feel like a target. My safety is in jeopardy." Several speakers mentioned that they warned or had been warned by concerned family members not to wear the hijab for safety reasons. However, one young woman said, "I feel empowered by my hijab."
The security guards at the high school came under heavy criticism, more than anyone else involved in the incident itself. East Brunswick made national news last year when armed security guards were placed in every school coincidentally following the Parkland school shootings. Repeatedly speakers asked, "Where were the security guards?" One student entered the cafeteria during the incident and could hear many cries for help, but no guards came to the assistance of the student. A teacher wound up breaking up the fight. "I need my school to protect me, " said a student who spoke. "There were no security guards in sight." Some students complained that the guards are often inattentive. A parent who was proud to have moved to East Brunswick because of the reputation of the public schools, but "If our children are not safe here, we have to take our taxes and go."
The issue that garnered the most complaints was that of the district's Zero Tolerance Policy, which, in this case, referred to the fact that both girls in the fight received the same punishment - suspension - as a result of having engaged in the altercation. Almost every speaker called for the girl wearing the hijab to have her suspension rescinded and saw the act more as an attack rather than a fight. They pointed out that the aggressor had been involved in several fights before and said that suspension would have little impact on her, but that the other girl had a clean record and did not want this blot on her high school experience right before graduation. Both girls are Seniors. Some speakers called for more help for the aggressive girl, who they said was failed by the system, or saying she uses the school as a "hunting ground to find her next victim."
Many saw the policy as giving an advantage to bullies, as it discourages students from fighting back, as they will be punished. Others said that it was an oxymoron, "If am going to get the same punishment for not defending myself as I do for defending myself, I might as well defend myself." Said one speaker, "We are sending a message loud and clear. We have no tolerance for the zero tolerance policy."
Other speakers were vitriolic, accusing the BOE members of not doing their jobs and calling for them to be voted out of office. Former BOE candidate Wesam Berjuoui called for more diversity in staffing in East Brunswick and called the Blue Ribbon designation "phony" unless the district makes serious changes.
After three hours of the public portion of the meeting, the Board of Education began the regular meeting at around 11:30.