Five and a half months went by after the incident in the home economics room. J took the Smarter Balanced Assessment along with the rest of his 7th grade peers at Smyrna Middle School. On April 20th, J and his friends were walking down the hall on their way to the school bus. Something happened that would alter the course of J’s future…P, the alleged victim of the home economics class incident, passed by J. She heard a word. As the security cameras captured the moment, P believed she heard a word. The same word she heard in November… terrorist! Soon after, P and her mother were in Principal Gott’s office. They told him about what P thought she heard. The result? J was suspended from school pending a discipline hearing and charged with a hate crime. He was arrested.
From the transcript of the discipline hearing on September 7th ,2016, attorney Allyson DiRocco said in her opening statement:
As a result of J’s conduct also, he was arrested and charged with a felony. The District has received the Attorney General’s report notifying the District of the criminal charges which are still pending.
You will hear from Detective Weller, who arrested the student and investigated also.
Because J… because his presence in the school represents an ongoing threat to the health, welfare, and safety of the students and staff at the Smyrna Middle School… at the Smyrna Middle School, sorry, the administration recommends an expulsion for 180 days with alternative placement.
So what happened? According to the q and a between DiRocco and P:
DiRocco: And then there was another incident after that?
P: In the hallway upstairs.
P: That’s when I was passing by. And he came, and he like said “terrorist” in a low voice.
DiRocco: And that would have been in April…
DiRocco: of your seventh-grade year?
DiRocco: Last school year. Okay. Do you remember writing… giving written statements?
In questioning P about the incidents affected her, P’s gave the following statement:
It has affected me to the point where I don’t want to wear my hijab in school anymore because I feel unsafe. I feel as if I’m going to get targeted. And I’m just fed up with being called names. I don’t want to be a part of it.
Associate Principal John Camponelli was the administrator who investigated the April 20th incident. After P and her mother filed the complaint with him ,Camponelli asked J what happened.
J had said, “Mr. Camponelli,” and I’m paraphrasing here… but, “Mr. Camponelli, I have had zero interaction with her since the incident in home ec.” At that time I told him that I would continue to investigate, I appreciated his time and that, you know, if I would need him for anything else, I or, you know, a member of the administration would get in touch with him.
Camponelli took statements from P at the time. P wrote:
I was walking in the Hallway and this kid called me a terrorist and asked him who was he talking to and he got scared and this happened before with the same kid in an old class of Home Ec in the first two marking periods.
J’s statement was taken the next day and he wrote:
I said nothing inappropriate to anyone yesterday. And never will.
On April 21st, Camponelli phoned J’s mother and indicated he believed J.
Did they get any corroborating statements from witnesses to this event? Yes, but not until May 4th, two weeks later. J’s cousin G actually gave a statement to administration:
We were walking down the hallway talking to each other when P, when she ran between me, Jordan and (redacted) when J said “terrorist” and P started flipping out threatening to hit J and then we left.
On the statement, there is what appears to be a post-it note attached to it from now Superintendent Patrik Williams which states “This witness is J’s cousin.” In talking to J’s mother, the conversation had nothing to do with P and G was paraphrasing what P thought she heard. I have to wonder why it took two weeks to get a statement from G. Camponelli was not the one who obtained the statement from G. That was the work of Principal Steven Gott.
The actual Smyrna School District Discipline Referral was not completed until May 9th, 2016. Camponelli wrote:
Student made inappropriate comments that offended a female student in school. Comments made here comments that include “terrorist”. This is the second incident with the same students.
If only one word was said, how could it be comments, pluralized? And if it was one student, how could it be the same students, pluralized?
The police were notified of the incident and J was placed under arrest. According to J’s mother, J and his mother brought him to the police station on May 12th. At the time of the arrest, J was not read his Miranda Rights. She even asked the arresting officer at the time why this didn’t occur and she was told they did not have to because they were not asking J any questions. Is this true? It depends on the perspective. According to Tucker Law Group, the United States Supreme Court weighed on the issue:
In Miranda v. Arizona, the U.S. Supreme Court held that all individuals under police custody must be advised of their constitutional rights in order to ensure that they understand their Fifth Amendment right to be free from self-incrimination. Collectively, the rights of which individuals must be advised are their “Miranda rights.” Generally, police must inform suspects that they have a right to remain silent and that they have a right to an attorney, whether or not they can afford one. In addition, the police must advise that any statements made following the Miranda warning can be used as evidence against the individual in court.
J was booked by the Smyrna police, fingerprinted, and photographed. He did not spend any time in jail as he was released to his mother.
On May 13th, Gott wrote a letter to then Assistant Superintendent Williams about what occurred.
I am writing in regards to J, a 13 year old 7th grade student (ID # …) who is currently enrolled at Smyrna Middle School.
On April 20, 2016, we received a report that J once again made an inappropriate comment to a student in the hallway based on her religious beliefs. A full investigation took place through surveillance footage and witness statements. The resulting code of conduct violations are as followed:
S0105 – Inappropriate Behavior: Disrespect towards a Student
C0105 – Hate Crimes
Criminal charges are as followed:
Hate Crime – Felony G
Harassment – Insult, Taunt, Challenge another, Alarming Distressing Conduct – Misdemeanor
What is important to note is J’s age at the time of his arrest. Had he been 12, he would not have been arrested. But since J turned 13 prior to this arrest, he was arrested. In looking at J’s E-School report, which has his discipline record at Smyrna Middle School, the hate crime charge was not placed on E-School. E-School is the mandatory reporting system that schools are required to report any discipline incidents, whether it is the perpetrator or the victim with three business days. This information goes to the Delaware Department of Education. The only offense category from April 20th was the S01015 offense. It also said J received “Suspension – Out of School without Services.” For the November 15th incident, J was given the offense category of D0901, which is “Terroristic Threatening Student Victim”. Note there was no harassment charge for that incident.
Why did it take so long for the investigation, which should have been cut and dry based on the statements? According to Gott’s testimony in the transcript:
I know Mr. Camponelli initially began an investigation with the issue in April. Unfortunately, he went out for a couple of weeks on medical leave. So during that time I was aware. The reason why there is a little lag in time, he was out on medical leave, but also our School Resource Officer Weller informed me that P and her mother did reach out to the police regarding a possible criminal investigation, so I wanted her to sort of get her investigation wrapped up before I get involved in getting other witness statements so it did not sort of cloud the water in regards to the investigation. I did take the statements. I did review the surveillance and did speak to the individuals. There were two other young men that were with J at that time. One of them did write a statement in regards to it. The other student did not because he indicated to me he saw n0thing, he heard nothing, he knew nothing. So I wasn’t, obviously, going to get anything that he did not know, hear, or see.
I would assume a criminal investigation would supersede a school investigation. So why was J arrested AFTER the school completed their investigation? If Detective Weller was so determined to not cooperate with the school investigation because of the pending criminal charges, why did she wait until after the school investigation?
During his testimony, Gott explained how he determined J was “guilty” of the offense:
So as I, you know, as I was looking at the surveillance video prior to speaking to him, I see that there is three young men walking down the hallway. I see P walking sort of alongside of them. And something must have been said. Some kind of action must have been done… obviously, surveillance doesn’t have audio… because she abruptly turned around, and something was alarming her. She made a brief comment and within literally seconds she walked away.
DiRocco questioned Gott about a look on J’s face at the time.
There is an expression of kind of a smirk on his face. I don’t know exactly what prompted it. And, again, I don’t know the comments, only based on what P and J and from what the witness said regarding the word terrorist.
I concluded that as the young lady is walking by, I concluded that J intentionally did make a comment. I know in the statements regarding was it a mumble, it was a low volume. And I think his intention was to cause alarm in the young lady as she was walking by. In this case she turned around and addressed it. I don’t know if he expected that reaction, but that was the reaction that he had.
J’s testimony showed J’s side of the story:
Me and (redacted), the other boy walking down the hall, were talking about the carnival. And he said something similar to terrorist. And I was concerned that he did say terrorist, and I asked him if he said terrorist. And P heard me ask him if he said terrorist. And I’m assuming that she heard me say terrorist and thought that I was calling her a terrorist.
When questioned about his exact words, J testified:
“Did you say terrorist?”
According to J’s testimony, the only words he ever said to P were:
“I was not talking to you.”
During the closing statement, J’s mom testified:
And I just think that expelling him out of school isn’t fair. And I don’t think I even need to point out that she wasn’t wearing her hijab today or hasn’t since school started, so… and J is not even in school. So I don’t think it’s about my son at all. And she has already had issues with another teacher, a substitute teacher, and issues with students in other schools. JBM, as a matter of fact, is what it said. So I’m just kind of confused now why this is going to ruin my son’s life when it’s obviously a problem. Maybe she is a little oversensitive. And that’s all I have to say about that.
What was the result of the delayed investigation?
At this time he was disciplined… he was suspended out of school pending the results of a disciplinary hearing, as we are here today, also the results of a criminal investigation that he was ongoing at that point in time. So we placed him on homebound. Since it was May 9th, typically the consortium school do not accept student after May 1, so we provided services for the remainder of the year on homebound services.
Gott made a recommendation to the Assistant Superintendent, Patrik Williams:
The recommendation was that J would be expelled for a period of 180 days with educational services provided by Parkway Academy Central. And that’s based on the code of conduct violations of inappropriate behavior, C code 1501, hate crimes, and also the criminal charges of a felony charge hate crime and also harassment charges…
During the hearing, Assistant Superintendent Williams testified, when asked by DiRocco if J’s conduct indicated that he presented a threat to the health, safety, and welfare of students and staff at the District:
Anytime a student or a group of students feels unsafe, using P’s words from earlier, or feels that she has been victimized by an intentional act defined as a hate crime, anytime the administration and the school resource office, whose job is not only to investigate but also educate students to help them avoid hate crimes, anytime all of those pieces fall into place… and in this case they have… and J committed a hate crime even after getting all of the interventions provided by the school… and at least one student, in P’s words, is fearful of coming to school and chooses to remove a sacred symbol of her religious faith, that absolutely meets the definition of endangering the health, safety, and welfare of others.
Notice Williams states with absolute fact that J committed a hate crime. At the time of the discipline hearing, the criminal trial did not take place. J did not receive a trial or even a verdict in the alleged crime. Or is that just the district’s way of twisting this to make it appear so before the hearing officer? That is my opinion.
A discipline hearing was scheduled for June 1, 2016, according to a letter from Williams to J’s parents. That was postponed due to J’s mom asking for a continuance so her attorney could attend. The district granted that request. It was rescheduled for July 14th. J and his mother did not attend that meeting. J’s mother said she never received any notice of that meeting. So it was then rescheduled for September 7th. To be continued in Part 3: The Hearing, the State Board and the Delaware DOE get involved…
One question I had, which was never revealed in the transcript, was the word the other student in the hallway said that caused J to say “Did you say terrorist?” According to J’s father, that word was “ferris wheel”. Since the boys were talking about a carnival in town, I can see how that could come up. I believe J, who was already in trouble once for using the word in November, wanted to make sure it wasn’t used again. According to J’s mother, P appeared to walk not towards J and his friends, but in-between them. As well, the video surveillance had no audio. The only testimony about what was said was based on what J said and not what occurred prior to that. Hallways at the end of a school day are loud and noisy. I can see how J misheard what his friend said and asked a clarifying question.
Since I wrote the first part, I received a letter from now Superintendent Patrik Williams asking me eight questions. I responded to him last evening. I will include both his letter and my response toward the end of this series. But I did indicate why I didn’t reach out to the district on this matter, since they are not allowed to give out personal student information. As well, I openly stated I would talk to P’s parents to get their perspective. There have been a couple of people who have, whether on Facebook or in comments on that article, been very forthcoming in their opposition to my writing this. They believe, wholeheartedly, that J committed this hate crime and deserved a just punishment. They have also questioned my writing this in parts. Once again, this is a complicated issue with many moving parts. But one thing I did want to add to this was a reply I gave on Part 1 to a commented named “A Little Bird”:
This is J’s story, not P’s story. I’m going by what is in the transcript. I didn’t say I don’t believe J. I think there were three people who heard different things and then administration put their own spin on it. Lest we forget, this is in a home economics class. In the transcript (which I didn’t put in the article), they talk about sewing machines. Which were being used when this happened. These are 7th graders. There was probably talking going on. If P’s parents want to talk to me, they are more than welcome. I’ve seen many times, in a tense moment, where people swear they saw something and they are ALL different. It happens. Given that I know how the rest of this plays out, I am inclined to take what J said at face value. I believe he said what he said based on his statement. I also believe P thought he was talking about her. Was he? No, he was pointing at his friend. I have to assume many Muslims in America feel sensitive toward certain comments. I remember after 9/11 many Muslims were persecuted in this country. I lived in southern California at the time and many were rounded up for no reason other than they were Muslim. That has to be a very real fear for many Muslims in America. Like I said though, all the quotes are verbatim from the transcript which was part of an official hearing at the district with a stenographer.
I will own up to mistaking the letters of the students in my reply, but I edited them in this to show what I was talking about.
There was also discussion about the paraprofessional’s decision to place J and M in the in-school suspension room. According to some teachers I have spoken with, that is a customary practice in our schools until an administrator gets involved. But my question about the paraprofessional’s decision is this: if the para was a one-on-one for another student who happened to have disabilities, who was watching that child in the classroom while she left the room? Shouldn’t someone else from the school have come down to the room to take the students to the ISS room? Those are semantics that don’t necessarily affect what happened in that situation, but as a father of a son with disabilities, I felt that was important to mention.
Many parents and citizens have shown support for J and his family based on what I wrote in the first part.