HHS advisers: Turban case simply ‘stupid act’

‘No one sees hate crime, especially kids’

By Anthony V. Coppola, Staff Writer
   HIGHTSTOWN — The teachers who lead three culturally based clubs at Hightstown High School are convinced that the burning of a Sikh student’s turban earlier this month was not a hate crime.
   Wilson Hernandez, faculty advisor for the Adelante Club and Jewish Student Union, and Marilyn Jose, faculty advisor for the South Asian American Club, said Wednesday that the consensus throughout the school is the victim was not targeted for his religious beliefs.
   On May 5, Garrett Green, 18, a senior at the high school, was charged by borough police with arson and criminal mischief for allegedly lighting a 16-year-old’s turban on fire with a cigarette lighter during a fire drill. On May 14, just before Mr. Green’s arraignment in Municipal Court, police added charges of bias intimidation and aggravated assault.
   ”When this student was flicking his cigarette lighter all over the place it was nothing more than a lack of impulse control,” Ms. Jose, who did not witness the incident, said. “None of us believe it was a hate crime, especially the kids.”
   The family of the victim could not be reached for comment Thursday. But his uncle previously said his nephew was “shocked” and “angry,” and that it is up to the justice system to determine the appropriate criminal findings.
   The national Sikh Coalition called for the school district to take immediate steps including an explanation of the incident to students and the inclusion of information on Sikhs in its curriculum.
   Ms. Jose, a ninth-year teacher at the high school, said she understands why the Sikh community would be upset, but maintained that any student could have been the victim of what she called “a stupid act.”
   ”For people whom this is their religion, they saw it as an act of desecration,” she said. “We were more concerned about the kid it happened to. If you know him, he’s a wonderful kid and it’s an awful thing.”
   Ms. Jose’s club has more than 60 members representing the Philippines, India, Pakistan, China and Korea. She said members, which include Sikh students, discussed the incident at one of their recent meetings.
   ”All of the kids say it wasn’t about what he (the victim) represents,” Ms. Jose added.
   Attempts by the Herald to talk to student club members were unsuccessful. Ms. Jose said she understands why there was reticence.
   ”My initial impression is when you have people from outside the school coming in to target a specific group of people, there is some hesitance,” Ms. Jose said. “And when their parents aren’t American-born, there is added hesitancy to grant permission.”
   Mr. Hernandez, who has taught at the high school for six years, agreed with his colleague and said Hightstown High has a great atmosphere.
   ”We never see this kind of stuff in the school,” he added. “It’s normal to see kids wearing turbans. They belong to us; they are part of the community.”
   And the formation of the various cultural clubs at the high school has prompted that sense of connectivity.
   ”The students are mainly upset because the incident has become a negative reflection on them,” Mr. Hernandez said. “The clubs work hard to create an environment for students of similar backgrounds to meet while at the same time inviting outsiders to experience the different cultures and learn to respect each other.”
   Mr. Hernandez said all of the school’s clubs are open to everyone and members are encouraged to bring their friends to meetings. His Hispanic club has about 40 members and the Jewish Student Union 18.
   Mr. Hernandez said a recent spate of hateful graffiti consisting of swastikas and anti-Semitic and anti-American commentary throughout East Windsor, Hightstown and Roosevelt hasn’t come up at any meetings.
   ”The kids are free to talk about whatever they want but that hasn’t been mentioned,” he said. “They aren’t connected to it, I’m guessing that’s why.”
   In February, three 18-year-old township residents were charged in connection to some of the graffiti. At least two of the men graduated from Hightstown High.
   For Mr. Hernandez and Ms. Jose the main concern is not letting the school’s recent “black eye” hurt morale.
   ”We love the kids and the kids like the school and each other,” Ms. Jose said. “We want to preserve that.”