Two New Jersey 17-year-old boys have been arrested after reportedly calling a group of Black middle school girls the N-word and urinating on them at a Lawrence High School football game Oct. 18.
Police say the bias incident — the way hate crimes are referred to in New Jersey law — is still under investigation and encourage anyone who was witness to the event to contact them with information. Police held a press conference at the Lawrence Township Municipal Building on Tuesday.
One of the boys was charged with four counts of bias intimidation, four counts of harassment and two counts of lewdness, according to Lawrence Township Police Detective Lt. Joseph Lech, who is leading the investigation. The second teen was charged with four counts of bias intimidation and four counts of harassment.
Police Chief Brian Caloiaro told reporters he heard about the incident the following morning when Lawrence Township Mayor Michael Bobbitt called him. The investigation began soon after the police reviewed the Facebook post one of the girls’ mothers made regarding the incident. Videos of the incident are going viral.
The officers interviewed the victims and suspects — all minors — with their parents present.
Though there were officers at the game, the police department says no one at the game reported the incident to them. However, some reports indicate the girls did try to report the harassment Friday night.
Caloiaro said some victims said in their formal statements that they tried to talk to officers at the game, but in the interviews were unable to identify who the officer was or where they spoke with them.
Caloiaro said no officers at the game said any students approached them regarding the incident. He said officers are mainly there for emergencies, but typically the school’s security guards and other workers take care of disciplinary actions.
“Historically, officers don’t get involved with discipline at these events,” he said.
Ross Kasun, the superintendent of Lawrence Township Public Schools district, said that no school security guards said they were aware of the incident at the time either. He said students at both the middle and high schools were disappointed coverage of the event showed their community in a negative light.
“Many of our students have also shared their disappointment on how this is being portrayed in the news and on social media,” he said. “They want all to know this is an isolated incident and not who we are as a school district.”
The high school is 42.7% white, 17.6% Hispanic, 17.7% Black and 17.8% Asian, according to the School Digger. Both the middle and high schools held faculty meetings and assemblies with the principals regarding the incident, Kasun said. He also said they made sure counselors and teachers were available for students to talk to.
“Along with our investigation, we are working diligently to ensure that all of our students are well and safe,” Kasun said.
Trenton city council member and Rutgers University Professor Jerell Blakeley said this was not the first episode of racism in Lawrence High School’s history.
“My brother and sister graduated from Lawrence High and I can remember the racial incidents that they had to endure while students there,” he tweeted.
In a Facebook post, he also said the students — of a mix of races — who were bystanders and did nothing to intervene also were guilty.
Bobbitt, who is Black, also addressed the media at the news conference and said he was proud of how the police and schools were handling the situation.
“I’ve also said that bigotry is a cancer, and much like cancer, even if it’s gone into remission, it’s still there, and when it pops up, we need to take appropriate action,” he said.
In its initial public statements, the Lawrence Police Department said the two boys arrested were of Indian descent. Police confirmed that detail at the news conference, saying they shared the race of the perpetrators to prevent the spread of rumors. When people involved in an incident are minors, there is very little information the authorities can publicize about them.
The Lawrence Twp Police Department would like to announce the arrest of 2 juvenile males who reside in Lawrence Twp and who are of Indian descent in connection with the bias incident that took place at Lawrence High School on Friday night. Great work by LTPD Detectives
— Lawrence Twp Police, NJ (@LawrencePD_NJ) October 20, 2019
A reporter asked Bobbitt how a community should address an incident of one minority being prejudiced and violent against another.
“I think, let me start from a personal perspective on this,” he said. “I think the difficulty that African Americans and myself included feel about this is that this is a taught bigotry, that we are somehow at the low end.”
He said that instead of seeking vengeance and calling for the perpetrators to be part of the same juvenile justice system that continually disenfranchises Black children, the community should work on other ways of preventing hatred.
“I think in Lawrence one of the challenges for us is to show that there is another way,” he said.
Kasun said the school district will take appropriate action against the perpetrators when the investigation is complete.
“I don’t think we’re in the punishment business, I think we’re in the teachable moment business,” he said. “Sometimes a punishment and a consequence is part of that teachable moment. And because it’s still an ongoing investigation, obviously the outcome of that will show what justification of the punishment that will take forth.”