“Earlier this week, gender-neutral East Bay teen Sasha Fleischman’s skirt was set on fire while napping on the bus on the way home from school. Sasha is being treated for second and third degree burns to the legs,” read the message in my school email. The email continued, “The Gay-Straight Alliance club is making a giant card for Shasha – please come and sign.”
It was the first that I had heard of this horrible event, and I went to sign immediately.
Here’s the appalling story: Luke “Sasha” Fleischman, 18, is a student in Berkeley, Calif. Sasha was born male, but does not identify as male or female, instead preferring the term “genderqueer.”
“My preferred pronouns are the singular they (they/them/their/theirs),” Sasha had written in an online posting prior to this incident. “If you find that weird, you can use whatever pronouns you want for me, but I prefer those ones.” (Note: This article will use Sasha’s preferred pronouns.)
After falling asleep last Monday afternoon at the back of a bus heading for East Oakland, Sasha’s skirt was set on fire. Sasha tried unsuccessfully to extinguish the flames on their own, but was able to do so with the help of other passengers. However, Sasha suffered second- and third-degree burns to the legs that will require significant skin grafting. They will probably be hospitalized for two to three weeks.
The student is in stable condition at St. Francis Memorial Hospital’s Bothin Burn Center in San Francisco, according to Trevor Cralle, the admissions director at Maybeck High School in Berkeley, where Sasha is a senior.
“Sasha is getting good care, and has a good prognosis for recovery,” Cralle wrote in an e-mail to the school’s parents and staff.
Oakland police say a 16-year-old boy has told them he committed the attack because he’s homophobic.
Alameda County prosecutors say the suspect, Richard Thomas, a student at Oakland High School, will be tried as an adult. He faces charges of aggravated mayhem and felony assault resulting in serious bodily injury in the Monday evening attack on Sasha. Thomas will also face hate-crime enhancements on both charges.
After I added my message to Sasha’s card, I was heartened to discover that support for this teen has been pouring in on a website that sought to raise money for the high school student’s recovery. A cousin, Joshua Allan, closed the fundraiser after more than 400 donors gave over $21,000.
Even better, on November 8, about half the 100 students at Maybeck High School in Berkeley, where Fleischman attended, wore skirts for Skirts for Sasha Day and carried signs reading, “Get well, Sasha, we miss you.”
And there’s more: Fleischman’s father, Karl Fleischman teaches kindergarten at Sequoia Elementary School on Lincoln Avenue in Oakland, and starting Friday teachers and students plan to have every bus stop pole on the 57/MacArthur Line streaming with rainbow ribbons, said teachers’ union president Trish Gorham.
How do we make sense of this shocking and disturbing crime?
As a high school teacher, I have experienced first-hand how some kids can be cruel and heartless towards both their peers and their teachers. But the idea that this 16-year-old student felt so enraged that he set Sasha’s clothing on fire is terrifying.
As the Oakland Tribune reports:
Thomas’ “violent and senseless criminal conduct resulted in severe and traumatic injuries to a young and entirely innocent victim,” said Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley.
“The intentional and callous nature of the crime is shocking and will not be tolerated in our community,” O’Malley said. “Our thoughts remain with the victim and the victim’s family in wishing for a full recovery from the extensive burns suffered as a result of this crime.”
Troy Flint, spokesman for the Oakland Unified School District, decried the violence:
“It’s an appalling crime,” Flint said. “Regardless of who’s responsible, whether he’s an Oakland Unified student or someone else, it’s a condemnation of the callousness of our society and just the level of violence that exists in Oakland and elsewhere.”
Undoubtedly the responses condemning the behavior of this young man will pour in, and rightly so, but his action also puts a spotlight on our culture and society in 2013. How is it possible for such a hideous attack to take place in the U.S. today? This is a tragic and shameful event, and I hope the city of Oakland and all of us will take time to evaluate what it means.
We send Sasha our support and wishes for a speedy recovery.
Photo Credit: fundly