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Sikh student's turban set ablaze .................

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Sikh student's turban set ablaze during school fire drill

by Jeff Diamant/The Star-Ledger

Monday May 12, 2008, 8:45 PM

A routine fire drill at Hightstown High School in Mercer County turned terrifying for one student.

As students gathered outside on school grounds one morning last week, someone came up behind a 16-year-old junior, a member of the Sikh faith, and allegedly set the boy's turban on fire.

His hair was singed in several places, but he was otherwise unhurt, according to his uncle, Harjot Pannu.

"He felt like a bee stung him, and he patted on it," said Pannu. "Next thing he knew, a teacher came over and told him he was on fire."

An 18-year-old Hightstown senior, Garrett Green, was arrested hours later and charged with arson and criminal mischief, said Ben Miller, an investigator with the Hightstown Police Department.

"I was very angry and very upset and very mad initially, I could not even think straight," said the victim's mother, Sukjhot Kaur, who asked that her son's name not be printed. "The fact that something like this could have happened is beyond comprehension, especially in this day and age with the diversity we have and the way we are taught ... There should never be any fear of violence."

More than a quarter-million Sikhs live in the United States, according to an attorney with the Sikh Coalition in New York, Harsimran Kaur (no relation to Sukjhot). Since 9/11, there have been at least 600 reported bias incidents against Sikhs in this country, he said, including one homicide in Arizona.

New Jersey is home to one of the five largest populations of Sikhs in the nation, with somewhere between 25,000 and 30,000 residing here, according to Kaur.

"Sikhs are visibly identifiable as being different because most Sikh men wear a turban," said the coalition's lawyer, Kaur. "The only association that the general public sees with turbans is Osama bin Laden, or Middle East terrorists. Sikhs have nothing to do with terrorism. Our turban is an article of faith that's religiously mandated."

Sukjhot Kaur, whose husband died of cancer 10 years ago, works for the U.S. Postal Service and she and her son live with her brother, Harjot Pannu, in East Windsor.

"I spoke to the cop who went out there, and the cop told me the teacher didn't take it seriously," Pannu said. "She thought it was a prank. To me it is not a prank. It is life-threatening."

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