The causes of a terrible attack

November 20, 2013

Jessie Muldoon, a teacher at Oakland High School (writing in a personal capacity), considers the factors involved in the assault on a gender non-conforming student.

SASHA IS 18 and a senior at Maybeck High School, a private school in Berkeley, Calif. Richard is 16 and a junior at Oakland High School, a public school where I teach. Sasha is white, while Richard is Black. Sasha is also "agender," identifying as neither male nor female.

On Monday, November 4, the two rode the same bus home from school. At some point, Richard apparently used a lighter to set the skirt Sasha was wearing on fire. The clothing quickly burned--Sasha was ultimately taken to a San Francisco hospital with second and third degree burns. Since the attack, Sasha has undergone surgery, involving skin grafts.

It took a couple days for the details of this attack to become fully known at school, but by the time it did, the entire Oakland High community was in shock, and prosecutors were talking about charging Richard as an adult for committing a hate crime.

Our staff came together and universally agreed on holding lunchtime rallies to make Get Well banners and raise money for Sasha's medical bills. Students and staff wore badges that read NOH8, and the principal read a powerful message condemning hate and gender-based violence, while at the same time affirming Richard's humanity and the tragedy his family also faces.

Students in Oakland sign a poster for Sasha
Students in Oakland sign a poster for Sasha

A fund drive led entirely by students at Oakland High was able to collect more than $800. The Oakland Education Association donated $500, and online fundraising goals were quickly met. On Thursday, November 14, students and teachers at Oakland High held another lunchtime sign-making for a community march later that night, which drew over 200 people who marched along the route from Oakland High to the bus stop where Sasha was attacked.

At Sequoia Elementary, the Oakland public school where Karl Fleischman, Sasha's father, teaches kindergarten, teachers, staff and families tied rainbow ribbons along the bus route. Male students and teachers at Sasha's high school had a "Skirts for Sasha," day when they all wore skirts. The support for Sasha and the family was immediate and sustained.

IT MAY never be known exactly what Richard was thinking when he set Sasha's skirt on fire. His friends and his attorney are calling it a prank gone wrong, while the district attorney is charging Richard as an adult with aggravated mayhem and assault, with hate-crime enhancements--he faces the possibility of life in prison if convicted.

We do know that the bus ride when Sasha's and Richard's paths crossed has changed both their lives forever.

For students and staff at Oakland High, we keep asking each other and ourselves: How could this happen?

For people who are gender non-conforming, hate crimes are all too common. An attack like the one committed on Sasha, a kid dozing on a public bus after school, feels particularly vicious.

But such an assault does not happen in a vacuum. Homophobia and transphobia are prevalent--even government policy. In spite of recent U.S. Supreme Court rulings, marriage equality is still not recognized in every state, and in many workplaces, employees can be fired for real or perceived sexual orientation, which is why the passage of the Employee Non-Discrimination Act, with protections for transgender people, is so important.

Being gender non-conforming is a challenge to the gender binary we are taught is natural and normal. Masculine and feminine/male and female are the only options and are generally presented as opposites or complements, rather than points on a continuum. From a very young age--really from birth--gender identities are constructed by colors, clothes, names and toys. Fitting in is rewarded, and non-conforming is punished. And the messages to conform are woven seamlessly into our culture.

So Sasha's skirt was more than just a clothing choice. Whether intentional or not, it was a challenge to the gender framework people are taught to believe is central to the functioning of our society.

And what about Richard? Did he see the skirt as a statement? Sasha's father has spoken to the press with amazing empathy for the young man who caused such trauma to his child: "It seems like I should be angrier at what happened to Sasha...but I keep holding out the possibility that the kid just thought it would be something funny to do and didn't know the consequences. I just know that 16-year-olds are not fully formed yet."

That is as much a comment about the complex nature of all the issues involved in this case as it is a call to not try Richard as an adult.

OAKLAND IS a city with a high murder rate, a corrupt police force and an incompetent city government. Trying Richard as an adult fits the narrative of clamping down on youth violence, while cynically using the hate crime enhancements to bolster Oakland's reputation as progressive.

Oakland's City Council recently debated a youth curfew--while youth unemployment is estimated to be around 50 percent. The graduation rate for Black males in Oakland is significantly lower than the national average and lower than that of their white peers. A public school student Richard's age will have been educated under the test score-driven No Child Left Behind law and the failed "zero tolerance" discipline policies that have filled the school-to-prison pipeline.

School districts like Oakland Unified have been implementing reforms to address the school-to-prison pipeline by bringing in programs like restorative justice. The discussion around high school "dropouts" has shifted to how students are "pushed out" by schools, placing the responsibility more on the systems than the students.

These are important changes. Zero-tolerance policies combined with a fiction of a color-blind society allowed schools to suspend and expel students while filling the juvenile justice systems with young people of color. Any reforms to push back on that trend are welcome.

Likewise, Oakland Unified has made progress in supporting our LGBT youth.

During my first year teaching in Oakland, a wonderful teacher at the middle school I was working at was driven out after she came out to her class in a unit on families. She, along with her students, constructed their own family trees to demonstrate the variety of families in our lives. For this, she was disciplined and eventually chose to leave Oakland. The message sent to staff and students at that time was clear: Stay in the closet.

Since then, though, the district has made many positive reforms. We have multiple anti-bullying campaigns and curriculum, and Gay-Straight Alliances at many high schools and at least one middle school. There is a campaign around social emotional learning, and empathy-building activities are common in many classrooms. Students and teachers aren't punished, officially, for being out, though discrimination and bullying are still serious problems.

All of these reforms are crucial to making our schools safe and nurturing places for a diverse student population. But at this point, they are treatments for the underlying problem, not prevention. As long as racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia are sanctioned in various ways at the level of government policy, we will continue to treat the wounds that our students bring to school with them--and tragically sometimes inflict on each other.

Many educators have talked about the attack on Sasha as a teachable moment to bring these issues into our classes and teach an anti-hate message. We have been building the NOH8 message at Oakland High and will continue to do.

But the message needs to go deeper than that. Sasha is still in a hospital room, and Richard is in a jail cell. We need to challenge the social and cultural framework that our youth grow up under, and work together to reform and radically change the policies and laws that imprison, disenfranchise and ultimately deny our humanity.

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