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EAST BRUNSWICK, N.J. — A New Jersey high school student has been charged with simple assault in connection with a physical altercation in which she allegedly pulled off the hijab worn by a Muslim student.
The student, a female under age 18, whose name was not released due to her age, has been charged with simple assault, harassment, cyber harassment and disorderly conduct, Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew C. Carey and East Brunswick Police Chief James Conroy said in a news release.
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.
Before the beginning of the instructional day Wednesday, a disagreement between two female students over a seat in a common area at the high school quickly escalated into an exchange of words and a physical altercation, according to a letter sent Thursday by East Brunswick Superintendent of Schools Victor Valeski to the East Brunswick school community.
One of the students involved was wearing a hijab, which is a headscarf that some female Muslims wear. It was pulled off during the altercation, the superintendent said.
“Ultimately, 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 #8465 (Hate Crimes and Bias-Related Acts) and the law,” the letter said.
Both of the students involved are minors and are not in school today, Valeski said Thursday.
The East Brunswick Public School District “values our diverse student body and community,” the letter said.
“The District does not tolerate any incidents of bias, discrimination, harassment, intimidation or bullying and takes swift action if such an event occurs,” he said. “I want to assure the East Brunswick Community that we have been, and will continue to be, deeply committed to promoting and maintaining a safe environment for all of our students and staff.”
Valeski said the incident was “inaccurately re-reported on social media.”
Mayor Brad Cohen said he spoke with the superintendent regarding the incident.
“Board of Education policy has been set to administer punishment to both parties whenever there is fighting in the schools,” the mayor said. “It is up to the Board of Education’s Administration to determine the level of punishment. It is my understanding that there was an unequal distribution of punishment given in this instance. The perpetrator was given a far worse punishment.”
Cohen said he has been assured “that the Muslim woman and her family have been seen and offered any help needed from the school psychologists and support staff.”
“There is absolutely no truth to the rumor that she will not be allowed to walk at graduation,” he said. “I am also aware that the perpetrator posted an inflammatory statement on Snapchat, which has also been shared through social media.”
Cohen said the East Brunswick Police Department immediately investigated and determined the incident did, in fact, rise to the level of a bias incident, but not a hate crime.
“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,” the mayor said. “Bias, in any form, is unacceptable in this community and it is simply not who we are or what we stand for. I am heartened that all the comments I have heard or read regarding this incident were met with outrage. Let me be very clear in that I stand with our Muslim friends and neighbors in condemning this entire incident.”
The township will be hosting an open forum, which will be scheduled in the next few days, to discuss the issue.
A petition created by East Brunswick Changes on Change.org, which has garnished more than 1,600 signatures, is calling on a change in the district’s “No Tolerance Rule.”
According to the petition, “the ‘No Tolerance Rule’ East Brunswick High School enforces does not take into account the circumstances of an altercation. The ‘rule’ suggests that no matter if you were attacked, harassed, or harmed in any way and you fight back, you will be punished. Basically if I were to be attacked in the middle of the hall and punch back to defend myself and ensure my safety I will still suffer the same if not more punishment than the attacker. This rule is unfair to those that have been attacked and felt self-defense was needed. This plan must change because it is prejudice to the victims that have been affected.”
The petition also says that “by getting enough signatures we will be able to bring this down to the vice or main principal to discuss the flaws this plan holds for the school.”
Valeski said while he gave specifics of the incident, he said the “No Tolerance Rule” would not apply in this case because “it was a verbal exchange that escalated to an altercation.”
“Both girls were involved,” he said.
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