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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Borough teen faces bias charge

A Hightstown High School senior accused of lighting a fellow student’s turban on fire was charged with a hate crime during his arraignment in municipal court Wednesday evening.

The accused, Garrett Green of Hightstown, is the 18-year-old adopted son of Peddie Head of School John Green, who declined comment Thursday.

Judge Gregory Williams entered not-guilty pleas on Garrett Green’s behalf for charges of bias intimidation and aggravated assault in addition to earlier charges of arson and criminal mischief, which were reported in last week’s edition of the Herald.

All charges against the 18-year-old, who was released on his own recognizance, will now be presented by the Mercer County prosecutor’s office to a grand jury to determine if he will be indicted.

Hightstown Police Chief James Eufemia explained that the two charges were added Wednesday after the department completed its investigation that day into the May 5 incident in which Mr. Green allegedly used a cigarette lighter to set the victim’s headpiece ablaze.
”The aggravated assault charge was added because the student was set afire and that there was intent to cause serious bodily injury,” he said Thursday. “The bias intimidation was added because a patka, which is a Sikh religious symbol, was set afire.”

The victim, whom police said was not injured in the incident, lives with his uncle, Harjot Pannu, in East Windsor. Mr. Pannu attended Wednesday’s arraignment and said that while he feels Mr. Green is guilty, it’s up to authorities to make that decision.

”If you endanger someone’s life and try to hurt them, then you’re guilty in my mind,” Mr. Pannu said outside the courtroom. “This incident has left a big impression on us.”

When asked how his 16-year-old nephew is coping with the assault, Mr. Pannu added the boy is “angry.”

”It can be mentally damaging. He’s shocked about what happened,” he said.

East Windsor Regional School District Superintendent Ron Bolandi said this week that the victim returned to school immediately after the incident took place and that students and staff are “embracing” him.

”He had to go back to school. He has exams,” Mr. Pannu said. “He’s got no other option.”

Mr. Green attended the arraignment with his mother and his West Trenton based attorney, Scott Krasny.

None of the three would comment after the arraignment.

Mr. Bolandi said the district’s investigation did not indicate a hate crime had been committed (see related story on 1A) but the district dismissed him permanently from school.

A source close to the situation told the Herald that Garrett Green is a special education student with emotional issues.

On Tuesday, Mr. Bolandi said he felt law enforcement officials were being pressured to file such a charge. And later that day Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande, R-12, notified the media that she had made a request to the Mercer County prosecutor’s office that a bias crime charge be filed. A spokeswoman for the prosecutor said later that day that her office eventually would review the case, but that had not taken place before the arraignment.

Thursday morning, Chief Eufemia said, “This department was not under pressure by anyone. We investigate every incident, then charge the appropriate offenses, if applicable.”

Mr. Bolandi said Thursday that he was surprised at the hate crime charge.

”The police must have a different threshold than we do,” he said.
”It’s an unfortunate incident,” he continued. “We did the best that we could.”

Mr. Bolandi also said he wished “people understood the entire situation, rather than reacting to it, and lived it and understood Hightstown High School.”

In a reference to people that he said did not include police, he added, “These are outsiders trying to give Hightstown High School a black eye.” [Link]

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