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source: http://www.sikhspectrum.com/032003/bullied.htm

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SikhSpectrum.com Monthly Issue No.10, March 2003

Pushed Too Far

by Meeta Kaur

At the age of eight, Parteek Singh found his life as a young Sikh boy in India exchanged for one in Seattle. After a number of moves, the Singh family found themselves settled in Auburn, a town of about 44,000 located between Seattle and Tacoma. Auburn, founded in 1891 as the town of Slaughter, promotes its “pioneer spirit” in public relations material. But this town, with a minority population of less than 15 percent, turned its back on Parteek, whose silence in the face of bullying ended in violence.

Now, after Parteek Singh has endured time in juvenile hall and as he deals with a felony charge on his permanent record, community members are asking what went wrong and how they let this happen.

A Sikh Boy’s Story

The Singh family immigrated to America due to unrest for Sikhs in India. Beginning in the early 1980s, violence against Sikhs began escalating in the northern Indian state of Punjab. Pogroms against Sikhs became commonplace. In June of 1984, the Indian government sent the Indian army to seize the Golden Temple, one of the holiest places of Sikh worship, back from what they considered to be a dangerous Sikh independence movement.

At the same time, Indian forces attacked 38 other gurdwaras (Sikh temples) throughout Punjab. More than 20,000 Sikhs were killed in these attacks. When Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her two Sikh bodyguards in November of the same year, angry mobs killed over 2,000 Sikh men, women and children. They also burned and looted hundreds of Sikh homes, businesses and places of worship. The largest number of innocent deaths occurred in the capital of New Delhi. Nationally, the government declared Sikhs terrorists. This terrorist policy left Sikhs with a waning desire to pledge their national allegiance to India.

"We were doing business in India. Then, too many problems came. I had always heard that America was like heaven. Many opportunities, it was good for the kids to grow up in America,” said Parteek’s father, Satwinder Singh.

Parteek’s parents decided the chances for a secure life in India for Parteek and his younger brother, Shami, were slim. They looked to America as the “land of dreams,” and so they arrived in 1996.

A cursory review of Parteek Singh’s life in America does fit the dream sequence laid out in his parents’ minds. A love for basketball, reading books, performing well in school and tight family ties made up Parteek’s seemingly happy life. The family went to community and religious events in the town of Renton, Wash., where there is a gurdwara to which Sikh Americans come from all over the state.

Parteek’s internal life revealed another reality altogether. He kept a different world — one where he was forced to tolerate name-calling, teasing, pushing and punching by school peers — a secret from outsiders. When his family found out, they would try and move to a new area and hope the teasing would stop. It never did.

The cause of this hostility towards Parteek? He wore a topknot of hair covered with a headwrap, keeping his hair neat and in place. This is known as kesh, and represents one of the five sacred articles of the Sikh faith. Parteek’s kesh represented a connection to Sikhism, a spiritual heritage he is very proud of.

Sikhism is a monotheistic faith that believes in living a life of equality, remembering God, honest labor, charity and service to the community. Sikhs subscribe to five articles of faith and one of the five tenets says that Sikh men are not to cut any of their body hair. Taken together, all five articles of faith represent a commitment towards a value system that closely parallels the democratic values celebrated by Americans.

“It Tests Your Will”

Unfortunately, teasing and harassment have become an academic ritual for a majority of Sikh American men. One Sikh American man describes the experiences as “schizophrenic.” Another describes it as “an experience that tests your will.” Parteek’s commitment to this Sikh article of faith translated into a rallying point for playground aggression.

Every time Parteek confronted a hostile situation, he respected his mother’s wishes and resisted the urge to fight back. Prior to the Sept. 11 attacks, some of Parteek’s classmates hurled racial slurs like “raghead” and “diaperhead.” Parteek endured this emotional taunting along with pushing and punching every school year, beginning at age eight. “I would watch him get quieter and quieter. He would just lay on his bed in his room,” Parteek’s mother, Gurmeet Kaur recalled.

The aggression and hostility against Parteek heightened after Sept. 11. The media portrayals of the “enemy” depicted South Asian and Middle Eastern men donning turbans. Television images of the turban associated this Sikh article of faith with terrorism. In Arizona, this ignorance turned deadly when Balbir Singh Sodi, a Sikh American man, was shot to death outside of his gas station by 42-year-old Frank Roque, who claimed that he was doing his job “as an American.”

At Rainier Middle School and Auburn High School, school peers repeatedly shouted “Osama bin Laden,” “terrorist” and “diaperhead” at Parteek. He endured harassment in the halls, classrooms and in gym class. The Singhs notion of dreams coming true in America curdled into a reality of daily harassment for their son.

Surprisingly, Parteek and his family were the only ones who knew about this young boy’s suffering. Teachers, a vice principal and community organizers unanimously describe Parteek as a personable young man who is very respectful and an amazing student.

In February 2002, Parteek’s tolerance for repeated terrorist references and physical attacks by his school peers waned. One of Parteek’s classmates was throwing pencils at him while calling him a “raghead” and “diaperhead.” Parteek asked the boy to stop. The boy ignored Parteek’s request and continued the taunting. Parteek got out of his seat, walked over to the boy who was calling him names and slapped him on the side of his head, near his temple — one of the most fragile parts of the head. As a result, the boy suffered a fracture to his skull.

Parteek’s legal advocate, Amelia Derr, recalls Parteek’s reaction, “I remember Parteek describing how he felt when he slapped the kid on the side of his face. He said, ‘All the people who have ever teased or hit me just flashed through my head. I don’t know what happened. I did not mean to do it.’ ”

The injured boy’s family charged Parteek with second degree assault and he faced up to nine months in a juvenile detention center, plus restitution and six months of probation.

To avoid further harassment and damage to their permanent records, Parteek’s father cut Parteek and Shami’s hair, removing the most visible Sikh article of faith from their physical identities. Distraught, Parteek’s mother preserved both of her sons’ hair by taking it home with her after the kesh was cut.

How the System Failed

Derr, the education director for local community advocacy group Hate Free Zone, advocated Parteek’s case in the school system and during his court proceedings on Sept. 17, 2002. While Derr realized that school administrators refused to acknowledge Parteek’s history of being bullied, he insisted that that history continued to affect him at the age of 14. Derr acknowledged the heightened harassment Sikh and Muslim children were experiencing after Sept. 11.

"It breaks my heart that the people in the school system, like teachers, who are protectors of children, do not have it in them to provide a safe environment for children. One kid’s teacher told him because he was a Muslim, he was going to hell,” Derr recounted.

Derr acknowledged that some teachers have the same destructive perceptions of ethnic groups that students have, contributing to the hostile climate in schools. She also recognized that the school system overwhelms teachers. “Some teachers may not have racism or xenophobia in their hearts. They may just be ignorant. They do not have time or energy to educate themselves,” she said.

In Parteek’s case, Derr assessed that the system had failed this young man seven times, “Because Parteek was being harassed in school, the family had to move seven times. In my mind, this is an incredible failure of the system.”

Derr organized Sikh community members and teachers for Parteek’s court case on Sept. 17. In addition, Derr partnered with the Safe Schools Coalition to build up Parteek’s defense through supporting letters. These letters asked the court to recognize Parteek’s history and to take mercy on him.

Mike Walsh, a Seattle public defender, passionately supported Parteek in his court case as well. “Parteek is an incredibly sensitive kid. He is very fortunate to be a member of a caring and tightly knit community who gave him tremendous support,” Walsh said.

Walsh meticulously explained how Parteek faced an extreme amount of pressure and a very difficult choice in the juvenile court system. According to Walsh, Parteek pleaded guilty to third degree assault, a less serious count than second degree assault but still assault nonetheless. With this guilty plea, Judge Rammerman gave Parteek three days in the detention center, 27 days of home monitoring, six months of probation, restitution and a permanent record listing felony charges.

What had initially appeared as a legal victory was just the opposite. Walsh outlined the preferred route of action, a deferred disposition, saving Parteek from a permanent record with felony charges. Walsh could not emphasize how potentially problematic this sentencing was to Parteek’s future.

"He has a permanent record with felony charges. Poor kid,” the attorney said.

Walsh went on to comment on the social and cultural climate of Seattle, “Everyone likes to think they are tolerant and diverse in Seattle. I really do not think this is true.”

Lily-White Hicks

Terri Herrin, the vice principal of Auburn High School and gym teacher for 20 years, stated, “I have to apologize to Parteek for not understanding. Is there any way he can get back on a path with his hair?”

Herrin also stated, “There is a different clientele coming in that we are gradually building towards. We are lily-white hicks out here. When I ask teachers and administrators to think about black history month, they question me and say ‘What about white history month?’”

When Herrin reached for Parteek’s middle school file, she noticed that his prior record with ethnically motivated harassment was not documented in his file. It became apparent that Herrin, though very sympathetic to Parteek, had little understanding of his court sentencing. Teary-eyed, Herrin expressed her concern as a mother of a son. She asked how she could support Parteek in growing his hair back.

A bill mandating anti-bullying policies in Washington schools passed into law in 2002, and will be put into effect this year. The bill contains a reference to the state’s malicious harassment law, which bans harassment based on race, color, religion, ancestry, national origin, gender, sexual orientation or mental, physical or sensory handicap. It also bans bullying based on any distinguishing characteristics, such as size or hair color.

Locke and Attorney General Christine Gregoire, who pushed actively for the law, were firmly behind the bill.

"Passage of this bill sends a clear message that bullying is unacceptable and will not be tolerated in our schools,” the two said in a joint statement. “We must make sure that every student has a safe place to learn.”

Derr hopes people like Herrin take the policy seriously, “It’s just a piece of paper. It cannot do much unless people are behind the policy [and] actively advocating on behalf of kids.”

‘I Love My Hair’

Since Parteek and Shami do not wear their kesh anymore, Gurmeet Kaur has stopped taking her sons to community events and to the temple in fear of people saying hurtful things to them. Facing contradictory expectations from the broader American community as well as the Sikh community, the Singh family is painfully aware of opposing societal expectations.

"Parteek’s father let me know that he cut his [sons’] hair. That is disappointing to me in some respect,” Walsh admitted. “I know it happened because he was experiencing harassment … to blend in with American society.”

At a Seattle public hearing sponsored by the Hate Free Zone and other civil liberties groups, Parteek gave the following testimony on a videotape.

"I wanted to tell you that I have take a lot of abuse in my life in America. Ever since I have come to America, I haven’t fought back to anybody. Sometimes, even though I was one of the best basketball players in school, I have been picked last and I haven’t been able to play ‘cause kids wouldn’t let me play. Here in Auburn I tried to fit in. Then Sept. 11 happened and people started being mean to me again. Calling me Habib, towelhead, pepperhead. People call me Osama and Osama’s son. And a lot of people did drugs so I was afraid that if I told anybody I might even get hurt bad.

"It made me feel very bad when they called me diaperhead because I love my hair, it is part of my religion and I never want to cut my hair. I don’t know why they just don’t like different people. It hasn’t gone away since Sept. 11 and people still call me those names. I wish kids who bully would just quit. Can’t they see it hurts people? Even if they don’t show it? I know teachers know it goes on in school and they just ignore it. Please don’t ignore it.”

Some view Satwinder Singh’s decision to cut his sons’ hair as a move that cut his sons off from Sikh character. Other members feel as if they have lost Parteek and Shami to Western society. Gurmeet feels her sons have Sikhism in their heart and will not be so quick to abandon it even if their physical identity is temporarily removed for now. Both Parteek and Shami plan to grow back their hair once they move to college.

"I love my hair and I love being a Sikh. The Gurus were amazing people. They sacrificed their lives and that is why I am here today,” 11-year-old Shami expressed.

Please Discuss !

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what is there to discuss, the ignorence of Americans surpasses their intellect. I am actually very very upset over this. The Truth is that everyone gets bullied, some more than others. There are white american kids who get bullied by their peers, but those who stand out more so than others become a target more often. It is like a virus which wants to mutate everyone that is not like itself.

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Man...that just really pisses me off! How could something like this happen? Stupid ass shit..I don't take crap from anybody, and I would fight back. You can call me wrong, but kids who take abuse get nowhere. You need to stand up for yourself, fight back if you need to. Not only will your self-esteem not go down, other people won't pick on you. Most people just pick on others they know will take it passively.

My younger cousin used to get punched by a kid on the bus, and he did nothing, I found out when I saw the bruise on his arm. I told him next time punch the kid back (self defense). He did and that kid has never bothered him since.

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