The child who drew the symbol has been removed from the bus by the school, according to the Flagler County Sheriff's Office.
Two 5-year-old boys were riding the bus home from Imagine School at Town Center Nov. 17 when an older boy drew swastikas on the younger boys’ hands and arms, and told one of the two that he'd draw another on his forehead the next day.
Both of the 5-year-olds are of mixed race, and the boy who drew the symbol was white, according to the 5-year-olds’ families.
“(My grandson) came off the school bus yesterday with a swastika written on his hand in green marker, and he thought it was a number or something cute. He didn’t know what the insignia was,” said Letty Comin, 49. “He’s 5. It was a very sad day yesterday that we had to explain what this meant, and that it wasn’t good.”
Priscilla Aponte, 34, and the mother of the second 5-year-old boy, said that her mother met Aponte's 5-year-old son at the bus stop and noticed the swastikas on his hand and his upper arm about 20 minutes later, and told Aponte. The ink had been partially rubbed off, but the symbols were still clearly visible.
"I got so upset, because my 5-year-old didn’t know what it means," Aponte said. "He was very sad, because he’s the kind of kid who gets along with everyone. ... to hear what it meant broke his heart."
The incidents come as reported hate crimes and bias incidents have surged after the presidential election, with the Southern Poverty Law Center, a national civil rights group, reporting on Nov. 15 more that it had received 437 reports of “incidents of hateful harassment and intimidation,” including 35 incidents involving swastika graffiti, since Donald Trump became the nation’s president-elect Nov. 9.
“There have been a lot of things shown in the media lately with a campaign that was run completely on hate,” Comin said. “And I don’t want to blame everything on that, but our country is more divided than it’s been in a long time. … And it’s very scary to have to explain to a 5-year-old what that means. … I really believe it has a lot to do with what the children are hearing on TV.”
Aponte also said she attributed the incident at least in part to climate surrounding the Trump campaign. "Racism, it’s out in the open now, more than ever," she said. "With the racism being out there and Donald Trump speaking foul language and speaking of all different races and what we should do — it’s not appropriate, and it affects our kids."
Comin and her daughter Mercedez Owens — the 5-year-old’s mother — have complained to the school about the swastika incident, and scheduled a meeting with school administrators for the morning of Nov. 18.
Comin and Owens walked the 5-year-old to school Nov. 18 so he wouldn’t be on the bus with the same older boy again.
The fifth-grader child who drew the symbol has been removed from the bus by the school, according to the Flagler County Sheriff's Office. Imagine School at Town Center is a charter school and uses its own buses, which are separate from those used by the Flagler County School District, School District spokesman Jason Wheeler said.
Comin said she’d like to see the older boy expelled. “Expelled permanently, because I’m afraid for the safety of (my grandson),” she said. Aponte also wanted to see the older boy permanently removed from the school. And, she said, “I would like to meet the parents of that child, and find out what kind of parents they are … for their child to do this to a 5-year-old.”
Rhonda Cagle, a spokesperson for Imagine Schools, said the school is investigating.
“We are working to resolve it quickly,” she said. “We will take appropriate disciplinary steps in accordance with our code of conduct.”
Cagle said that could mean anything from a verbal warning to expulsion, depending on the intent and knowledge level of the child who allegedly drew the swastikas.
Privacy laws prevented her from saying what grade the older student who drew the symbol was in, and what measures have been taken to separate the children so far, she said.
“We can confirm that we are doing everything appropriate so that the younger children involved can consider our school and our transportation places of safety,” she said. “Our principal is totally focused on this incident right now … making sure that the campus — all students, all faculty — are aware of what our standards are when it comes to respect, civility, tolerance. … This is not consistent with what we expect of out students in terms of character.”
Cagle said she has not heard of any other bias incidents at any of the many Imagine Schools nationwide since the election.
Comin said she’d complained to the Flagler County Sheriff’s Office, and a deputy gave her a case number but explained that what the older boy had done was not criminal.
“They have said that in the state of Florida, simply drawing an insignia is not a hate crime unless it’s followed by violence,” she said. “That’s ridiculous.”
A Sheriff’s Office spokesman confirmed that the Sheriff's Office had taken a complaint from Comin's family. A Sheriff's Office news release stated, "The Flagler County Sheriff's Office is currently investigating the placing of a swastika on the hand of a student attending the Imagine School in Palm Coast yesterday. ... Deputies are following up today to determine a motive, as well as to see if there are any more incidents that may have occurred."
After a deputy followed up on the case Nov. 18, a Sheriff’s Office spokesman wrote in an email to the press that the deputy “was able to verify today that the fifth-grade student who drew the swastika was only ‘goofing around.’ … In fact, when the deputy asked the fifth-grade student today what he drew on the child’s hand, he stated he did not know.”
Comin said the family has contacted a lawyer to explore options.
For now, she said, “My foremost concern is getting him safely into class.”