KESWICK, ONT. The 15-year-old Korean boy sat quietly in the car Friday morning as his classmates streamed past the window, waving and saying hello.
The students were making their way to school in this small Ontario town, but the boy was travelling in the opposite direction. He was going to his first day at a program for suspended students.
As he watched the scene unfold, the 15-year-old's father was heartbroken. “It was really sad. He just wanted to go to school,” he said.
The boy later said there was little discipline or teaching and no prospect of academic advancement at the alternate school.
While the other students were learning, he said he spent the day playing table tennis.
The 15-year-old was suspended for four weeks from Keswick High School over a fight that he says began when another student racially abused him and punched him in the mouth. The boy, who has a black belt in tae kwon do, fought back with a single punch that broke his antagonist's nose.
He was initially the only person investigated, and police charged him with assault causing bodily harm. But 400 of his fellow students walked out of class this week to denounce the racist bullying that preceded the punch, and the outcry reached newspaper front pages. In response, York police reopened the case, and assigned a special investigator to probe whether a hate crime was committed.
The 15-year-old's parents are hoping the charges against him will be dropped.
But the ordeal is far from over.
Earlier this week, the boy's father received a couriered letter from the York Region District School Board. It said the school's principal, Catherine McGinley, was recommending the discipline committee mete out the harshest possible punishment when it meets on May 13. She asked that the 15-year-old be expelled not just from Keswick High, but from all schools in York region.
“It was horrible. It was a big shock,” the boy's father said.
On Friday afternoon, spokesman Ross Virgo said the board meant to retract that letter, that it was sent in error and that its contents were no longer valid. He said the case is being investigated further, and that the recommendation of expulsion is no longer in effect.
But no one had told the boy's family, who were still mulling over the letter's devastating implications late Friday.
They said that they feel as though some combination of forces is trying to run them out of this rural, mostly white town, particularly in light of attacks on Asian fishermen in the nearby Lake Simcoe area in 2007.
On Thursday, though, local Mayor Robert Grossi visited the family to assure them that they were welcome in Keswick. The mayor recognized the 15-year-old, who is a top student with a 90 average, as one of the leaders of a youth forum he had convened.
“I told them I was sorry about the incident and I wanted to make sure they that they understood they're not only welcome in this community, but they are already part of this community,” Mr. Grossi said.
On Monday, the boy will return to the program for suspended students. He is serving a maximum length suspension of 20 days, which he cannot appeal, for “committing physical assault on another person that causes bodily harm requiring treatment by a medical practitioner,” according to a school document provided to his parents. The school called the incident “a consensual fight with another student.”
His opponent sought treatment for a deviated septum, fracture and concussion. The 15-year-old said he regrets throwing the punch, but felt he had no choice after the other boy called him a “fucking Chinese” and punched him in the face, cutting his mouth.
His father said the school doesn't seem to understand the impact of the racial comment. Afterward, a vice-principal asked his son why a Korean was upset about being called Chinese.
“Probably they don't realize how much it hurts when someone makes a racist comment,” his father said. “My son said, ‘I felt all the way down, like I am nothing, on the floor. Like they're the master and I'm the slave.'“ His father said he will continue to fight for his son.
“Maybe they're trying to force me to move to another area, I don't know … I'm not going to give up. If I give up, no other Asian can ever come here and feel safe.”