PUNXSUTAWNEY — The group of eight to 10 youngsters, in their early teens, surrounded the smaller group of middle-school-aged children at Harmon Field a few weeks ago, and wouldn’t let them leave the circle. But it wasn’t a game.
The surrounding youngsters taunted the others with foul language and racial epithets. They told the surrounded youngsters that they didn’t belong here, because they come from a family of mixed races, white and black.
Then it happened again, shortly after the children’s mother filed a report with police.
A few boys from the same group followed the other kids, again taunting and teasing them all the way as they walked where they meet for youth group. The youth group leader had to tell the offending youngsters to leave the location. But they didn’t go peacefully, the children’s mother said.
“They are not afraid of adults,” she said. “I’m afraid to let them (my kids) go to the store alone.”
How would you feel if your child was being singled out, because he or she is different?
How would you feel if your child was singling out and abusing someone else, because he or she is different?
What would you do?
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The message delivered Tuesday by Robert Flipping Jr., intake and education and community service supervisor for the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission (PHRC), is one intended to stave off incidents such as this, now and in the future:
It’s OK to be different.
As the adage says, one shouldn’t let a few bad apples ruin the whole bunch, but local leaders — from municipal, service agencies, the clergy, academics, education and law enforcement — gathered Tuesday to let the bad apples know that their behavior won’t be tolerated.
Flipping said the idea of wanting to prevent this sort of behavior isn’t new — like the behavior itself — but it’s taken a while to get any preventative measures off the ground.
He said efforts to facilitate a community response to this behavior began during the tenure of former IUP-Punxsutawney Dean Dr. Valarie Trimarchi, but for some reason, the efforts slipped through the cracks.
That time has passed, however, and now, the PHRC, teaming with current Dean Terry Appolonia and the community, “wants to establish and employ some strategies to make persons who feel different a little more comfortable,” Flipping said.
He said the PHRC says it’s a fact: Anyone — regardless of race, color, age, sex, ancestry, national origin, religion or disability — has the right to live, work, learn and play free from illegal discrimination.
And anyone who tries to prevent someone who is different from taking advantage of those rights is breaking the law.
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Punxsutawney Borough Police Chief Tom Fedigan said the youth involved in the incidents have been cited with harassment, and will face fines if convicted. He said he’s also met with District Attorney Jeffrey Burkett to see to which level this case should be taken.
He said he was unaware of any similar incidents, but noted, “We’re not going to tolerate it.”
Both Mayor James Wehrle — who assembled Tuesday’s meeting at IUP-Punxsutawney — and Roberta Dinsmore, chairperson of the Punxsutawney Youth Commission who was also representing the Punxsutawney Area School Board, said this was a textbook case for the commission, which works with young people facing first-time offenses.
In this case, however, Fedigan said the commission was not an option for these youngsters, because they are not first-offenders.
“These kids are well-known to us, and probably will continue to be well-known to us,” he said. “This will probably not be the last time we run into these kids.”
Sgt. Carl Medsger, station commander of Punxsutawney-based Pennsylvania State Police, Troop C, also defined the charge of ethnic intimidation, which can be added to other charges, such as simple assault, and then is graded higher than the original offense.
He said the ethnic intimidation charge is included if “you break the law, and it’s because of ethnicity.”
Fedigan reiterated that police will not tolerate intimidating behavior, but by the same token, “What was reported to us was isolated, but I’d be a fool not to think that this doesn’t happen. It’s just not reported.”
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Flipping said the PHRC investigates cases in which people claim they have been discriminated against. Some cases end in letters sent to businesses or groups alleged to have discriminated against someone, some end in court, some end in death and subsequent trials, such as the case of Jennifer Daugherty, a mentally-challenged woman killed in Greensburg in February.
He also said the PHRC wants to “roll back the clock” in an age where an undercurrent of white supremacy and other racial or ethnic sentiments may seem under the surface, but exist nonetheless.
Citing the Daugherty case, Flipping said the PHRC responded because “what happens in the community can spill over into the schools, and what happens in the schools can spill over into the community. That’s why we jumped on to this situation, but you never know.”
The PHRC seeks to diffuse the tensions that can cause a community to fight amongst itself, and the first thing that a community can do to stave off that tension is to educate its people: In a setting such as that Tuesday at IUP-Punxsy, in an earlier assembly at Punxsutawney Area Middle School, and a later gathering also at IUP-Punxsy with its students, who, staff say, have been victims of this kind of treatment, but again, do not report it.
“The first thing to do is educate, especially kids at that age,” said Fedigan, referring to the youth involved in the harassment case. “Where do they get this (mindset)? You can point a finger in any direction.
“And if you can’t educate, then you prosecute,” he added.
Appolonia said different things reach different people in different ways. As evidenced by Tuesday’s group settings, the community — IUP-Punxsy and its hosts — is “beginning to allude to a reflection — but not the reflection.”
He also said affirmation is important, as is reacting to negative behavior with positive behavior.
“These are things we take for granted until we have incidents that offend all of us,” Appolonia said.
Flipping said the territory he covers with the WHRC spans 23 counties, yet noted he has heard very little reports of discriminatory behavior in Jefferson County.
On the one hand, that could be because the minority population of the county is so small, or that incidents are not reported.
But even if an area — a city, a town or a school, for example — has no minority, “We live in a global environment,” Flipping said. And those — such as the young people enacting the negative behavior — who are not open to having different people among them will find it difficult to assimilate into that global environment, where people of all kinds of races, ethnicities and differences seek to better themselves and their communities.
“But sometimes, if they are not embraced, they leave this area to benefit other people,” Flipping said. “If they are not being treated well, learning is not conducive because they have to worry about who has their back. We have a lot of great minds, but all people could be losing great minds.”