Prosecutor’s office charges female student following bias altercation

EAST BRUNSWICK – Middlesex County Prosecutor Andrew Carey and Chief of Police James Conroy have announced charges against an East Brunswick High School student following an incident on April 10.

A juvenile female student under age 18, whose name will not be released due to her age, has been charged with simple assault, harassment, cyber harassment, and disorderly conduct following an altercation with another juvenile on the school premises, according to a prepared statement from the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office.

Superintendent Victor Valeski said in a prepared statement that he wants to inform the school community that the incident has been inaccurately reported on social media.

“Yesterday morning, before the beginning of the instructional day, a disagreement between two students, over a seat in a common area at the high school, quickly escalated into an exchange of words and a physical altercation,” Valeski said. “Ultimately, the fight was determined to be a bias incident and was immediately reported to the East Brunswick Police Department and the [Middlesex] County Prosecutor’s Office in accordance with board policy … Hate Crimes and Bias-Related Acts and the law.”

Valeski said the East Brunswick School District values its diverse student body and community. The district does not tolerate any incidents of bias, discrimination, harassment, intimidation or bullying and takes swift action if such an event occurs.

After speaking with Valeski and officials from the police department, Mayor Brad Cohen said in a prepared statement, “What seems to be clear regarding the incident is that a young Muslim woman was involved in a physical altercation with another young lady. Board of Education policy has been set to administer punishment to both parties whenever there is fighting in the schools. It is up to the [board’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 that when there is any type of bias incident, it is the school’s responsibility to turn over information about the incident to the police department.

“So because of what is considered bias, it was [the] anti-Muslim slurs that were being stated and the Snapchat post that [the perpetrator] posted, it was then all forwarded immediately to the police department,” Cohen said. “Then, the police department has to do an investigation and turn over all their findings to the county prosecutor’s office.” 

Cohen said he is also aware that the perpetrator posted an inflammatory statement on Snapchat, which has also been shared throughout social media.

“The superintendent was made aware of this fact and he immediately reported the entire incident to our East Brunswick Police Department. Our [police department] immediately investigated the incident and determined that this did, in fact, rise to the level of a bias incident,” Cohen said. “As such, they consulted with the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office and followed all attorney general guidelines. It was determined that while this was a bias incident, it did not rise to the level of a hate crime.”

Cohen said the attorney general’s office has strict definitions of what a bias incident is versus what a hate crime incident is, and whether or not there is any the perpetrator is chargeable with.

“It was ultimately the decision of the county prosecutor that it didn’t rise to the level of a hate crime, but it was a bias incident and the basis was under the fact that the girl was not targeted specifically because she was Muslim. She was targeted because she was sitting in the [perpetrator’s] seat and they ended up having a brawl over a seat,” Cohen said. “Then, after the brawl started, did the racial slurs and then the pulling off of the hijab and all of that ended up but that was not the inciting factor. The inciting factor was that the girl was sitting in what the perpetrator thought was her seat and they were angry over that and that started the fight. She was not targeted because she was Muslim. That’s the difference.” 

Cohen said there were a lot of things that were being said on social media about this incident.

“Some of it was inaccurate, some of it was not. … One of the things that I had seen written was that the girl involved would not be able to walk in [her] graduation, that was not true. There were many things that were inaccurate and then, of course, there were people that were just angry. The overarching feeling, that almost gives me a sense of relief, is that everyone in the community was on the side of and defending the woman who was attacked. … The reality is that the vast major of the people that live here was outraged.”

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, according to the statement from the prosecutor’s office.

“Let me be very clear in that I stand with our Muslim friends and neighbors in condemning this entire incident. When any group is targeted, we, in East Brunswick, must stand united in our resolve to put a swift end to such actions,” Cohen said. “As such, we will be planning an open forum in the next few days to discuss this issue. I will send out notices as soon as a date, time and location have been determined. I hope that many residents in our community attend as we cannot allow incidents such as this to define our community. We are so much better than this.”

Anyone with information is asked to contact Detective Brian Adams of the East Brunswick Police Department at 732-390-6900 or Detective Tammy Colonna of the Middlesex County Prosecutor’s Office at 732-745-3145.

Contact Vashti Harris at vharris@newspapermediagroup.com.