Fairfax County Board of Supervisors Chairman Sharon Bulova announced on Mar. 26 at an anti-hate crimes event organized by the county at Northern Virginia Community College’s Ernst Center in Annandale that she will introduce a resolution at the Apr. 4 board meeting to affirm the importance of diversity to the community.
Bulova had previously issued her own statement expressing that sentiment in the wake of recent threats against Jewish and Muslim institutions in the area, but she then got questions about why the county as a whole has not spoken out.
“Having a statement coming from the governing body of the county is something that’s needed,” Bulova said. “I think it’s important for us to state our commitment to the kind of community that we are in Fairfax County, making sure that it’s clear.”
To craft the resolution, the chairman sought input from Fairfax County School Board chair Sandy Evans, the Fairfax County Police Department (FCPD), and Fairfax County Sheriff Stacey Kincaid.
The result is a statement that reiterates the obligation that the county, schools, and local law enforcement have to serving and protecting all community members, regardless of ethnicity, national origin, or religion.
The demand that Fairfax County put out such a statement comes as hate crimes and incidents involving discrimination and hate speech increase both in the county and across the nation.
The FCPD tracks what it calls bias crime incidents, which can refer to threats, attacks or hate crimes against specific racial, ethnic and religious groups as well as people with disabilities and lesbian and gay individuals.
According to the Bias Crime Incident Summary Report available on FCPD Chief Edwin Roessler’s webpage, Fairfax County saw a total of 272 incidents between 2010 and 2015, the years covered by the report.
However, there has been a noticeable uptick in incidents in recent years, with an increase from 42 reports in 2014 to 60 in 2015.
Roessler said during the Mar. 26 event, which was titled “A United Response to Hate Speech, Bias Incidents, and Hate Crimes” and was organized by the Fairfax County Department of Neighborhood and Community Services, that there were 83 hate-related incidents in Fairfax County in 2016.
Thus far, that trend does not seem to have abated in 2017.
The Gesher Jewish Day School in Fairfax received a bomb threat on Feb. 27, and the following day, Falls Church’s Dar al-Hijrah Islamic Center got a letter that contained the phrase “kill all Muslims.”
A Muslim family in Fairfax County reported on Monday that their house had been ransacked over the weekend with anti-Muslim graffiti written on their walls and their Quran destroyed. Fairfax County police are currently investigating the crime as a burglary and bias incident, according to NBC4 Washington.
With the FBI reporting 5,850 hate crime incidents in 2015 and the Southern Law Poverty Center (SLPC) collecting 1,372 reports of bias incidents between the day following the 2016 presidential election and Feb. 7, Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.) lay some of the responsibility for the rise in hate crimes on President Donald Trump when he spoke at the United Response event.
“Hate wins when we allow fear to govern us,” Connolly said, referencing comments that Trump made against Mexican and Muslim people during his campaign as well as the executive orders he has issued banning visitors from some Muslim-majority countries.
“It cannot ever be acceptable,” the congressman said. “We have to acknowledge intolerance in our communities.
One audience member openly disapproved of Connolly’s criticism of the U.S. president, shouting, “You are wrong. Shame on you.”
For the most part, though, the county event eschewed partisan politics and focused more on how Fairfax County residents can address hate speech and crimes at an individual level and through institutions like schools and the police.
Religious representatives belonging to different faiths, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, and Hinduism, expressed solidarity with each other and discussed how their congregations have dealt with acts of hate.
In addition to offering support when a particular institution or faith is targeted, local religious communities are making conscious efforts to work with each other by holding interfaith events or encouraging members to build relationships with people who hold different beliefs.
A member of the Bahá’í community in Fairfax, Ronald Lapitan, for example, is a group leader for its junior youth empowerment program, and he works with middle school children who belong to a wide variety of backgrounds and faiths, including atheism.
“The best way to combat prejudice is to create that association with people who can challenge your biases,” Lapitan said. “Create programs where people have to form relationships and friendships with people they don’t know about and who are different from them.”
The “oneness” of humanity is a core teaching of the Bahá’í faith. Its founder, Bahá’u’lláh, instructed followers to “deal ye one with another with the utmost love and harmony, with friendliness and fellowship.”
“Regardless of race, class, nationality, or religion, we’re all one people living in one world, and we should strive to build a world that operates that way,” Lapitan said.
FBI supervisory special agent Giulio Arseni acknowledged that it can sometimes be difficult to tell when speech or a specific act might constitute a hate crime, but the bureau generally looks at whether the act or words might carry a serious threat, meaning that intent is important.
It must also be motivated by bias against the victim due to their status as a member of a class protected by federal law, such as race, religion or national origin. The Hate Crimes Prevention Act of 2009 added gender and gender identity, sexual orientation, and disability to that list.
According to Arseni, it can be difficult for the FBI to investigate reports of hate crimes, because victims often do not speak out until much later and have not preserved the evidence needed to build a case.
Under the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), assistant U.S. Attorney Steven Gordon, who serves as civil rights enforcement coordinator for the Eastern District of Virginia, primarily looks into allegations of discrimination and civil rights violations at schools.
The DOJ focuses on how school officials respond to allegations of harassment using federal laws and policies such as Title IV of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 and the Americans with Disabilities Act that prohibit discrimination in public education.
The legal standard that the department follows when determining whether to prosecute is three-fold: if the harassment interferes with a student’s ability to participate in classes and other activities; if the school knew or reasonably should have known about the incident; and if the school failed to take adequate action, which could refer to anything from separating the victim from their harasser to counseling services and staff training.
Almost half (48.8 percent) of the students who took the 2015-2016 Fairfax County Youth Survey, which is distributed annually to 6th, 8th, 10th and 12th graders, reported that someone had made a derogatory comment to them about their race or culture.
About 14 percent of respondents reported being bullied on school property, while 11 percent said they had been cyberbullied by a fellow student at their school.
While confidentiality rules prevent the school system from disclosing a lot of information about investigations to victims and their families, Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) does track bullying incidents and investigations through an electronic system, and it is obligated to ensure that all students are safe, according to FCPS director of intervention and prevention Dr. Mary Ann Panarelli.
Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe also signed H.B. 1709 into law on Mar. 24, requiring school boards to adopt policies directing principals to notify parents of any student involved in an alleged incident of bullying of the status of an investigation within five school days.
Though there are disciplinary procedures, FCPS utilizes a tiered model of intervention to address bullying incidents that can involve school administrators, counselors and social workers. Restorative justice conferences, which bring in students and their parents to help them fully understand the impact of their behavior, have proven to be the most effective, according to Panarelli.
“In reality, punishment like a suspension just makes the student angry,” Panarelli said. “It doesn’t necessarily resolve the issue.”
According to Seth Gordon-Lipkin, the education director for the Anti-Defamation League’s Washington, D.C., region, it is crucial to address biases and prejudice exhibited when children are young before it escalates into more insidious and harmful behaviors.
“Starting at 3 to 5, people are learning to have negative associations with differences,” Gordon-Lipkin said. “They can just as easily be unlearned, but that education needs to begin at early ages in order to really make sure that we are building environments and communities where people are respectful of differences rather than afraid of them.”
The Anti-Defamation League’s “Pyramid of Hate” shows how hateful acts can start as subtle biases, as shown by stereotyping, insensitive remarks or an inclination to stick with groups of likeminded people, before escalating to individual acts of prejudice, systematic discrimination, and bias-motivated violence, including assault and terrorism.
At its most extreme, hate can lead to genocide.
“Genocides do not start with bullets or acts of violence,” Gordon-Lipkin said. “They start with words.”