Last September, the start of the Ann Arbor Public Schools academic year was marred by news of a fight described as an attack on an Arab-American girl.
The episode prompted a media blitz by the advocacy group Council on American-Islamic Relations and calls for investigations by state and federal civil rights agencies.
The tenor changed little when the Washtenaw County prosecutor’s office charged the alleged victim, signaling that authorities believed the then-16-year-old shared culpability in the incident.
At the time, Nabih Ayad, a lawyer representing the girl, called the charge “outrageous.”
A jury has disagreed, and later this month the teen will be sentenced on two counts of disorderly conduct.
In all, four young people – then all students at Skyline High School – were charged with crimes related to the incident that began as a school bus dropped students off near their homes on Maple Avenue.
However, Ann Arbor police were unpersuaded by claims that Arab-American teens were the victims of crime motivated by bias. In fact, investigators found evidence that contradicted much of what the 16-year-old Arab-American girl had said about the altercation that left her with an injury reportedly requiring half a dozen sutures.
She was not “jumped” or assaulted by a “mob,” says Beryl Goldsweig, the assistant Washtenaw County prosecutor who tried the case. On the contrary, independent witness accounts suggested the teen was a willing participant or even aggressor in a series of scuffles with another 16-year-old girl, an African-American.
“No one touched her except the one other girl,” says Goldsweig. “It was just a fight between two kids and the jury saw that.”
Ordinarily, the matter wouldn’t be of much interest beyond the families of the young people involved. But in this case, CAIR and Ayad, the girl’s attorney, had raised the profile and the volume:
- Detroit and local news organizations covered the story of a potential hate crime.
- The director of the state Department of Civil Rights issued a statement calling on the school district to implement conflict resolution and “cultural competency” programs.
- “We went to the Islamic center in Ann Arbor to talk with congregants,” says Dawud Walid, who heads the Michigan chapter of CAIR based in Southfield. “They were very concerned.”
“That group got a hold of it and ran with it,” says AAPS spokeswoman Liz Margolis, referring to CAIR.
Ayad and the Council on American-Islamic Relations
Ayad keeps a high profile himself.
A Granholm appointee to the state Civil Rights Commission, he is – according to the commission website – the chairman for the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee. Last month, The Arab-American News reported that he hosted a fundraiser for Democratic gubernatorial candidate for governor, Virg Bernero, at his home in Canton.
Ayad was among the plaintiffs in the American Civil Liberties Union 2006 suit against National Security Agency’s warrantless wiretapping program. He also represents the family of Luqman Ameen Abdullah, the imam of a small Detroit mosque who was killed in a raid by federal agents in October 2009.
And he’s a target for critics – like conservative pundit Debbie Schlussel, who peppers her commentary with assertions like, “Islam is not an ethnicity, CAIR – it’s an intolerant cult.”
Ayad represented the Arab-American girl when the disorderly conduct case was heard in juvenile court last month. But he did not respond to repeated Chronicle requests for an interview about the outcome of the case or the rhetoric around it.
CAIR’s Dawud Walid did.
“Any time a constituent is saying their child was assaulted and was called names, and had her head scarf ripped off, it’s sufficient premise for us to ask to have it investigated as a potential hate crime,” Walid says.
The possibility that someone involved in an altercation might be less than truthful is problematic, he allows. “That’s why the facts have to be discerned and why we asked for it to be investigated as a possible hate crime.”
However, the facts discerned by investigators – and affirmed by the jurors who last month listened to accounts presented by Ayad and Goldsweig – are not yet reflected in information on CAIR’s website or in any public statement. Instead, the website continues to carry information about the incident that’s largely at odds with the evidence gathered by police and accepted in juvenile court. From CAIR’s website:
On Tuesday [9-8-09], two Ann Arbor Muslim students were assaulted on a school bus by a mob of youth. One of the students, a 16 year old female, had her hijab ripped off and was told “F*** Arabs; they’re dirty.” “Why are you wearing a scarf?!”
Walid does not dispute the conclusions of the 22-page police report that was the foundation of the prosecution case against the teen.
But he declines to address questions about updating or amending material on the website to reflect the outcome of the criminal case. He similarly deflects questions about the potential harm done by alarm that, if one accepts the jury’s conclusion, was unnecessary.
“The major thing we asked for was that this be investigated as a potential hate crime based on what the complainant said. The prosecutor said the facts around case didn’t merit that.
“I wasn’t at the trial,” he says, though, “I’m somewhat familiar with the outcome.”
Yousuf Vaid, president of the Muslim Community Association of Ann Arbor, says CAIR does speak for the local Arab-American community. He referred all questions to the organization.
The Investigation: No Mob, No Ethnic Slurs
What investigators found was very different than that CAIR description.
No mob, no slurs. There was a second Muslim student, a brother of the girl in the eye of the storm. But his involvement didn’t come until long after the Skyline High School students had left the school bus that was bringing them home to North Maples Estates, on the city’s northwest side.
Here’s what did take place, according to authorities. (It is, again, a version Ayad failed to upend in court and declined to discuss for this story.)
There were hostilities brewing on a school bus. The driver got those involved to settle down.
When the bus reached a regular stop on North Maple Avenue and Hollywood, the Arab-American girl got off. Her foe, an African-American girl then also 16, was much farther back in the bus, the driver told authorities.
“The bus driver estimated it took the second girl 15 to 30 seconds to work her way forward and disembark,” says Goldsweig, the assistant prosecutor. The Arab-American girl could have started to walk home but apparently chose to wait for the other girl to leave the bus.
“There’s no way the other girl pulled off the hijab (or head scarf) as the Arab-American girl was exiting the bus, as she claimed,” says Goldsweig. “They were nowhere near one another at that point.”
Once on the street, though, the two began to fight.
“It was two girls fighting,” says the assistant prosecutor. “They were pulling on each other, pulling hair. That’s when the head scarf must have come off.”
A passing driver saw the fight and shouted at the girls to stop.
That driver, who became a witness, provided information about an injury the Arab-American girl had suffered at that point and about subsequent behavior that helped police unravel the story.
The driver was a “good Samaritan,” says Washtenaw County Prosecutor Brian Mackie. The woman was also a disinterested party who therefore made a credible witness, says Mackie, who’s part of the Michigan Alliance Against Hate Crimes.
The fight did, in fact, stop.
The African-American girl left the bus-stop area, heading down Hollywood to Vine Street and a well-worn footpath that serves as an alternate route to North Maple Estates.
The Arab-American teen then pursued her.
“The Arab-American started to walk down Maple Avenue toward home,” says Goldsweig. Then, according to witness accounts, the teen threw her books on the ground and went the other way, following the other girl.
Another fight began.
This time, two boys – then age 15 – put their hands on the Iraqi-American girl’s brother, also 15, apparently to prevent him from aiding his sister.
Those youths, both African American, were charged with assault.
The girls were charged with two counts each of disorderly conduct, misdemeanors. The African-American girl entered a guilty plea, which led to the dismissal of one of the charges.
The Arab-American girl wanted a jury trial. That took place last month. Sentencing is scheduled for Aug 19. The sentence will likely be community service, fines and fees, and an order to stay of trouble, says Goldsweig.
Other assertions about adult involvement or the Arab-American girl being “dragged” to a home were simply unfounded, says Goldsweig, who also prosecuted the duo charged with assaulting the Arab-American boy.
“The young lady couldn’t keep her story straight,” says Goldsweig. “She talked about going down the footpath to find her headscarf when it had come off near the bus stop. She said the African-American girl’s mother was responsible for the cut on her head, but the witness in the car saw the injury back at the bus stop and actually called out to the girl that she was bleeding.”
Three police officers testified at the trial. Several others had also worked on the case.
Hate Crimes: A Broader View
Michigan’s law on hate crime, or ethnic intimidation, dates to 1988. It adds to the penalty in cases where an offender is found to have committed a crime motivated in whole or in part by bias against a race or national origin, religion, sexual orientation, mental/physical disability or ethnicity.
The state regularly has one of the highest incidences of reported cases (726 in 2008 and 914 in 2007), perhaps due to reporting practices.
“Accurate data collection of hate crimes depends heavily on proper training of law enforcement to recognize such incidents and the cooperation and desire of communities/victims to report these incidents to law enforcement.” –Michigan Incident Crime Reporting
Bias against African Americans is the most prevalent of the reported crimes.
Recent reports also include crimes based on bias toward lesbians, gays, bisexual and transgendered people; Hispanics; members of the Jewish and Islamic faiths; and those of other, unspecified, ethnicity and national origin. Anti-white bias accounted for more than 20% of the incidents statewide in 2008. [.pdf files of 2007 and 2008 Michigan hate crime reports]
In Washtenaw County, there were 38 reported hate or bias incidents in 2007 and 24 in 2008, the most recent years data is available. That’s one incident per every 9,149 county residents in 2007 and one in every 14,487 residents in 2008. Statewide, the incidences for those years were one per 10,904 and one per 13,732 residents, respectively.
In Washtenaw County, African-American and LGBT residents were most often the targets of such crimes. Members of those groups represented more than 60% of the victims in 2007 and 75% in 2008.
There was a single report of an anti-Islamic bias crime in Washtenaw County during those two years. Statewide there were seven anti-Islamic incidents in 2007 and 20 in 2008.
The reports include a category of bias toward other, unspecified, ethnicity and national origin. There were two during the two-year period in the county; 31 over the two years statewide.
Arrests are more rare than incidents.
There were no ethnic intimidation charges in 2009 or 2010. There were four in 2008, one in 2005, two each in 2004, 2002 and 2001, and one in 2000, said Brian Mackie, the county prosecutor.
A small number of incidents in the data sets were crimes against a business or institution rather than an individual.
Nabih Ayad, the attorney representing the Arab-American girl in last year’s incident, had called for a U.S. Justice Department investigation. The department’s Civil Rights Division declined comment. A spokesman says the division’s general rule is not to discuss possible complaints.
The state Civil Rights Commission bowed out because Ayad, a member of the commission, was representing the Arab-American family, says spokesman Harold Core. “That’s done to avoid any conflict of interest.”
Reflections a Year Later
The so-called Skyline incident leaves city residents like Leslie Krauz Stambaugh with mixed emotions.
“I was so disturbed when I heard about it last fall,” says Stambaugh, chairwoman of the city’s Human Rights Commission. “I imagined a demur young girl with her head scarf pulled off.”
(In contrast, the school bus driver told authorities the girl left the bus telling the other girl she would “beat your ass” and other obscenities.)
“I’m glad to know that didn’t happen,” says Stambaugh, “but it doesn’t mean there aren’t serious problems out there.”
The city commission had no role in reviewing the episode. Its task is to advise the city council, focusing on trends rather than individual cases, she says. But commission members are also working to create a “community response group” that could offer assistance to police, victims or others in the community.
Coordinated by the commission, the fledgling group is a network of organizations including local schools, the NAACP, sheriff’s department, Dispute Resolution Center, University of Michigan’s Department of Public Safety and others.
“We’ve been working on this for a while. The idea would be to find out what’s going on and what resources might be helpful without taking sides,” says Stambaugh. “I can also see that we need to think about getting accurate information out… and how to be as sure as possible of what’s accurate.”
That would undoubtedly suit Ann Arbor schools’ spokeswoman Liz Margolis.
“We have many programs that teach tolerance and understanding and different cultures starting in elementary school,” she says. They’re part of the curriculum and the focus of special programs and events.
More than 70 languages are spoken in the school district, Margolis notes.
But after last year’s start-of-school fight, she said, “we were looked at as not doing anything about it.”
Indeed, a headline based on then-state Department of Civil Rights Director Kelvin Scott’s statement about the importance of the district engaging in these issues is featured in the department’s 2009 annual report: “Rights office urges Ann Arbor schools to cool ethnic tensions following beating” – from the Sept. 12, 2009 Detroit News. (Scott died of cancer in February.)
“For us, it was a fighting incident, not ethnic intimidation,” says Margolis.
The same four students later charged with crimes were suspended. The Arab-American family subsequently withdrew from the school, Margolis says. Those children had not previously attended Ann Arbor schools.
Setting aside this particular incident, Michigan continues to be in the top five on the FBI’s annual hate crime report, observes Stambaugh, currently fourth behind California, New Jersey and New York. “That tells me there’s plenty to worry about, but we’re interested in easing tensions, not adding to them over things that, in hindsight, appear to be unfounded.”
Mackie is more blunt: “A great disservice was done to the people the advocates involved say they want to help. This is an example of people who fit things into a narrative that matched their world view and weren’t interested in looking any further.
“I can sum up the lesson from this in two words,” he says, “Shirley Sherrod.”
Sherrod is, if course, the African-American woman fired from a top-level job in the U.S. Agriculture Department when Obama administration officials acted on what appeared to be anti-white bias in a video clip – without looking at the entire video for context or talking to Sherrod. A public apology followed.
“If we did our business in that fashion,” the prosecutor observes, “the world would be a scary place.”
About the writer: Judy McGovern lives in Ann Arbor. She has worked as a journalist here, in Ohio, New York and several other states.