Thursday, June 19, 2008

'Hate incident' in city

One student has been suspended and more disciplinary action could follow a possible hate crime at Lewiston Middle School, Superintendent Leon Levesque said Wednesday.

On April 11, a white student placed a ham steak in a bag on a lunch table where Somali students were eating. Muslims consider pork unclean and offensive.

The act reminded students of a man who threw a pig's head into a Lewiston mosque last summer.

The school incident is being treated seriously as "a hate incident," Levesque said. Lewiston police are investigating, and the Center for the Prevention of Hate Violence is working with the school to create a response plan.

"We've got some work to do to turn this around and bring the school community back together again," Levesque said.

Placing ham where Muslim students were eating was "an awful thing," said Stephen Wessler, executive director of the Center for Prevention of Hate Violence. "It's extraordinarily hurtful and degrading" to Muslims, whose religion prohibits them from being around ham. It's important to respond swiftly, Wessler said.

"Incidents like this that involve degrading language or conduct are often said by the perpetrator as a joke. I know that conduct is never static," he said. "It's part of a process of escalation."

If people think insulting Muslims with ham is OK, "More degrading acts will follow, until at some point we'll end up having violence," Wessler said.

The incident does not reflect the moral values of the school staff and students, Levesque said. "We need to take a look at this and review how a careless act is degrading and causes hurt to other people. All our students should feel welcome and safe in our schools."

He said a letter would be sent home to parents explaining what happened and outlining the school's response. Wessler will meet with students to address the school's climate, and staff will talk about how to respond to and prevent future hate incidents

'I didn't feel safe'

A 14-year-old Somali boy, whose mother asked that his name not be published, said he was eating lunch with four other Somali students on April 11. He noticed many others in the cafeteria "standing up, looking at us."

One boy came near, began laughing and threw a bag on the table while other students laughed and said, 'Good job.'"

"We didn't know what was in this bag," the boy said. "One of my friends reached inside it. It was a big ham steak. There were five of us at the table, all Somali. It was intended for us."

The boy said he looked up at students he thought were his friends. "I felt angered, offended."

He suddenly felt like he was alone. "At the school the next day, I didn't feel safe. I felt like everybody was against me. Before I felt like I fit in, and everything was normal."

He began to think white students didn't like him, and the act was their way of letting him know.

On Thursday, several students came up to him and said, "Those guys who did it were jerks. I apologize for them, and I hope you feel better."

The boy said they did make him feel better. "But for the rest of my life when I remember middle school, this will pop up right away."

He spoke out because he wants the community to know what happened, "that there is something like this going on in our schools."

Wessler and Levesque said the act happened the day before April vacation began, which prevented educators from gathering information.

"This is not done," Wessler said.

Special Thanks to Sun Journal

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