by Seth Hemmelgarn
A gender-nonconforming high school student from Oakland is recovering from burns suffered after another high schooler set their skirt on fire on an AC Transit bus. The youth being charged in the attack, which has received heavy media attention, is expected to enter a plea this week, while officials at both youths' schools are expressing sympathy for the victim.
According to Oakland Police Department spokeswoman Officer Johnna Watson, officers responded at 5:20 p.m. Monday, November 4 to "a report of a person who was intentionally set on fire" while riding a bus at Ardley Avenue and MacArthur Boulevard.
Luke Sasha Fleischman, 18, was found "suffering from burns to his lower body," Watson said in a statement. Richard Allen Thomas, 16, allegedly had fled the scene but officers soon arrested him, with the assistance of the Oakland School Police, Watson said. Police didn't share Fleischman or Thomas's names but their identities have been disclosed in Alameda County records and numerous media reports. The Oakland Tribune was the first media outlet to report many details of the case.
The San Francisco Chronicle reported this week that in a letter shared on Facebook, Karl Fleischman, Sasha Fleischman's father, wrote, "Even though Sasha appears to be a boy, the fact is, Sasha self-identifies as 'agender,' and prefers the pronouns 'they,' 'them,' and 'their,' when people refer to Sasha in the third person." Fleischman's family hasn't responded to the Bay Area Reporter's interview requests.
In documents provided by the Alameda County District Attorney's office, OPD Officer Anwawn Jones wrote that Thomas had set fire to Fleischman as Fleischman slept. Thomas "stated he did it because he was homophobic," wrote Jones.
In a brief call with the B.A.R. , Jones said he couldn't answer most questions because the investigation is ongoing, and he referred inquiries to Watson, who hasn't responded to the B.A.R.'s interview requests. However, he said, "a good Samaritan" had "stepped in and put out the fire" during the incident.
Jones said Fleischman "is in stable condition" and "is doing well, for all intents and purposes," but faces "a long road of recovery." Police haven't yet released video from the incident. Fleischman has been at the burn unit at St. Francis Hospital in San Francisco.
The Alameda County District Attorney's office filed the complaint against Thomas and is charging him as an adult. He faces felony charges of aggravated mayhem and assault resulting in serious bodily injury. Both counts carry a hate crime enhancement.
Thomas appeared in Alameda County Superior Court Tuesday, November 12 before Judge Gordon Baranco, and had been expected to enter a plea, but that was put over until Friday, November 15. Like other defendants, Thomas was kept in a cubicle during his court appearance and couldn't be seen from most of the viewing gallery.
After Tuesday's hearing, attorney Daniel Shriro, who appeared with Thomas Tuesday, declined to comment on the charges but said Thomas is "absolutely entitled to a vigorous defense." He wouldn't comment on whether Thomas has a criminal history. Several people who appeared to be in court to support Thomas declined to speak with reporters.
Support for Fleischman
Trevor Cralle, school and admissions director at Berkeley's Maybeck High School, where Fleischman is a senior, said Fleischman is liked by other students and "top notch" in academics. Fleischman had never had problems at Maybeck, said Cralle.
Several people at Maybeck, including Cralle and students, wore sarongs or skirts last week in solidarity with Fleischman, who often wore skirts, he said.
Officials at Oakland High School, which Thomas attended, also expressed support for Fleischman.
Amy Dellefield, who serves as student activities director at Oakland High, among other roles, said in an email that Thomas "was only a student at our school this year, and his attendance was terrible during that short time. We didn't have much of a chance to get to know him. He's been to several schools in the [district] in the last few years."
Thomas is "not representative of our student body as a whole," added Dellefield, and students "felt so bad about what happened that they took up a school-wide collection and raised over $500 in less than an hour for Sasha's relief fund." A follow-up drive was planned for Tuesday, she said.
Nicole Karam is a substitute teacher who last week was working at the school. Karam, who doesn't know Thomas, said some of the students who know him have said, "he was probably just thinking it would be funny" and set Fleischman on fire "as a prank."
Karam said that before the incident, she heard students in the hallway using the word "faggot." She said she corrects them, and officials at the school have been working to address such attitudes, but students in Oakland "have not been taught anything, really, about gay people in their curriculum."
Amy Wilder is an Oakland High School resource specialist who's an adviser for the school's gay-straight alliance and who also works with students who have special needs.
Wilder, an out lesbian, said, "Oakland High is making a really strong effort to make our school safer," and has been taking several steps even before Fleischman was attacked. The school is in its third year of implementing a grant designed to make schools safer.
Among other steps, the school has adopted Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support, a national model that includes the expectation that all staff intervene if they hear terms such as "faggot" or "the n-word" and use "the same language in messaging," said Wilder, who doesn't know Thomas.
The school also has a Not in Our School program, which includes curriculum and training designed to help combat hate speech against LGBTs and other groups.
There is a system where students may report bullying at the school, but Wilder said there haven't been many incidents being reported, and she wasn't aware of any that have involved LGBT students.
"We've seen a drop in bullying," said Wilder, and Oakland High's school climate score data have "improved." She said she doesn't know if that can be correlated with the interventions, "but there's certainly a lot of professional development and resources to help staff address these issues."
There are about 10 students in Oakland High's GSA. Some students come every week, but "I think a lot of kids don't come because they don't really feel like they need the support," said Wilder. "They're out, they're proud, and they're doing their thing."
Wilder said Fleischman's mother is organizing a march that's set to begin at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, November 14 at Oakland High, at the corner of MacArthur and Park boulevards. She said marchers would proceed along the route of the 57 bus, which Fleischman had been riding, to St. Paul Lutheran's Church, 1658 Excelsior, Oakland.
Oakland City Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan, an out lesbian who serves as the council's president pro tem and once sat on the AC Transit board, "is deeply troubled by this brutal attack against Sasha," her spokesman Jason Overman said in response to emailed questions. "Our youth deserve to feel safe when they leave home – and this kind of violence is vicious, it's ignorant and it's simply inexcusable ... She is touched to see the community's outpouring of support – and hopes it can help to cultivate a new awareness and tolerance around gender identity."