Is 'hate speech' returning to island?
June 9, 2008 · Updated 2:59 PM
"The discovery of two scrawled swastikas - one in a school stairwell - over the past six weeks have some islanders wary of resurgent hate crime on the island.More alarming to some is the fact that the incident on school grounds went unreported to police for more than a month - despite the fact that such graffiti falls under the legal definition of a hate crime.This hurts all of us, said Karen Ahern of the Bainbridge Unity Coalition. When something like this happens, we have to deal with it as a community.Several parents took their complaints to the Bainbridge Island School Board Thursday, accusing high school officials of mishandling the incident in which racist graffiti was reported in a stairwell near the old Commodore gym in early April.The inscription included a violent anti-black statement, plus the phrase white power and a swastika.The graffiti was found by students and reported to school officials on the eve of a youth human rights conference held on the campus. But it was painted over immediately, reportedly because school officials believed the message was written too light to photograph adequately for investigative purposes.The incident wasn't reported to Bainbridge Police until May 8.BHS student Kyle Grice told the board Thursday that the incident was a hate crime, and make no mistake about it.I'm scared, Grice said. It's pretty disconcerting to find out this is happening at your school.Others made anecdotal claims that several island families are considering removing their students to private schools.It's a terrible thing to have family members whose children are afraid, one said.In the second incident, which Bainbridge Police believe is unrelated, a swastika was painted in the roadway on Battle Point Drive the weekend of May 5-6.In both cases, formal investigation was been hampered by the fact that the offending symbols were painted over by the time police were contacted.Several youths, who took it upon themselves to cover over the symbol on Battle Point Drive after showing it to their parents, said they were simply upset and wanted to eradicate it from the neighborhood.Basically, it's my street and our community, and it was disturbing to have it there, one youth said.Bainbridge Police Chief Cooper said this week that such incidents should be reported to authorities immediately.I know it's disturbing to see it out there, but it is of evidentiary value, Cooper said. Please call us first.While police don't believe there is an organized effort to spread racist messages on Bainbridge, it would not be unprecedented.In the fall of 1991, a spate of hate literature distributed through a local post office box prompted a unity march that drew 500 islanders to Winslow Way. The leafletting was attributed to an 18-year-old avowed white supremacist who lived on the island for about a year before leaving Bainbridge in January 1992.Within a year of moving, he was convicted of two murders in the Olympia area - after beating an Asian-American teen to death with a concrete block in a railroad tunnel, then hours later shooting a motorist with an assault rifle after an altercation in a convenience store. In 1993, an Aryan Nations flier was found inserted in a box of crayons purchased at a local drugstore, but police said at the time it was a random occurrence. Several other incidents have been reported since that time.Now, the April swastika incident has crystalized some parents' recent frustration with island school officials, with adminstrators and board members bearing the brunt of ongoing complaints about allegedly unreported criminal activity in island schools.Recently, some parents expressed anger at not having been notified when a Sakai Intermediate School student was caught with a handful of pistol and rifle ammunition. The most recent complaints center on a February incident in which a youth was suspended from the high school after pointing a knife at another youth, whose wallet was later stolen. A school administrator reportedly referred to the incident as horseplay.Incidents involving the theft of a school computer and other equipment, and minor drug confiscations during the year also have raised the question among some parents of whether school officials are properly reporting criminal activities.Thursday, one parent also complained about apparently conflicting accounts of the swastika incident given by a school official to parents and police.Bruce Weiland, school board president, said Friday that the recent spate of unrelated events have given the district an opportunity to renew its ties with the police department, with whom there have obviously been some miscommunication.In retrospect, I would rather that we'd called police, Weiland said of the racist graffiti and swastika. That's something that we've learned.By no means is there any sort of policy or desire to cover things up, Weiland said. It's not true.Sharon Rutznick of the island's Jewish congregation said the failure of school officials to bring the racist graffiti incident out in the open prevented the community from confronting it.I am most concerned about the stuff at the high school. It makes us (the Jewish community) feel terrible that those children were left out to dry, Rutznick said. There is no possibility for community support if the administration does not report the incidents, if no one in the administration stands up against it. There was no contact with Maria (Rivera, multicultural counselor at Woodward and Bainbridge High School). Cooper said he has since spoken with school officials about what kind of graffiti should be reported.There's certain language that you'll always find on bathroom walls - paint that stuff over, Cooper said. Stuff that relates to a person's race, that should be a heat-seeking missile to police.Even if the incidents are pranks without actual racist intent, Cooper said such graffiti can be prosecuted as a felony hate crime under Washington state law.They're not funny, and they're not cute, Cooper said. The people who put it there have a screw loose, and they need some attention.The issue also comes as police and school officials have weighed the possibility of having a uniformed liaison officer in the high school building. The proposal met with the opposition of students at a recent public hearing - many decrying the prospect of having a gun on the campus, even if it's on the hip of a commissioned police officer.A decision on that issue is expected in the next few weeks, driven primarily, Weiland said, by whether the high school site council supports it.Correspondent Pat Andrews contributed to this report."