Students at a high school in Berkeley showed up wearing skirts to campus on Friday to honor an "agender" 18-year-old whose own skirt was set on fire during an AC Transit bus ride earlier this week in an attack that's now been charged as a hate crime.
"It's just remarkable that somebody would think it would be a good idea to light them (sic) on fire while they're sleeping on a bus," said classmate Ian Gonzer, referring to Sasha Fleischman as "they," the preferable term for many "agender" people. "Not just Sasha. Any person, no matter what they're wearing. It's just not cool."
Gonzer and the rest of Fleischman's friends at Maybeck High School wanted to show support for their peer, who identifies asagender, and does not like to go by either "he" or "she." Other terms for this identification can be "nonbinary" gender or non-conforming gender. The students planned to send the photo to St. Francis Hospital in San Francisco, where two classmates said Fleischman is in "remarkably good spirits" after one of several anticipated surgeries to repair the teen's burned thighs that were set on fire Monday evening on an AC Transit bus. In addition, people hung rainbow flags along the Oakland bus route where Fleischman was burned as a tribute they called "Rainbows for Sasha."
|Maybeck High School student Ian Gonzer shows his support for classmate Sasha Fleischman by wearing a kilt. (Jodi Hernandez)|
In her first interview with NBC Bay Area on Friday, Fleischman's mother, Debbie Crandall, said their whole family is so grateful for the outpouring of good wishes and more than $21,000 to help pay for medical costs.
"The community has just come out and we just feel loved and Sasha is loved and accepted,"Crandall said.
Fleischman's friends say the teen is loved.
At school, Gonzer said he went "the whole nine yards" for Flieschman, dressing just as his friend often does: Bow tie, vest, white long sleeve shirt, cap - and a skirt. He said he thought Fleischman, "one of the smartest students at Maybeck, would get a kick out of it."
Maybeck's director, Trevor Cralle, arrived to school wearing a blue wraparound with yellow flowers to support Fleischman, whom he called an "excellent" and "spectacular" student. The motto of the school, which comprises about 100 students, is "Open Hearts, Open Minds."
As Fleischman begins to recover, 16-year-old Richard Thomas made his first court appearance on Thursday in Alameda County Superior Court, charged (PDF) with a hate crime, aggravated mayhem and felony assault. Witnesses and video surveillance on the bus led to his quick arrest. He did not enter a plea as his family sought an attorney.
Though he is a minor, the District Attorney charged the teen - who attends Oakland High School - as an adult. A police statement indicates Thomas said he lit Fleischman's skirt on fire because he was "homophobic."
Thomas' family was in court, and told reporters he only intended to burn the victim's skirt as a joke.
His mother, who did not want to be identified, said her son is not a hateful person. "Most mothers would say that, but he's not," she said. She said he is a kid and said "kids joke around," adding he wasn't trying to hurt anyone.
She said her son is very remorseful and and wants to apologize to Fleischman, saying he is already writing a letter to the victim.
On Monday evening, Fleischman was sleeping in the rear of an AC Transit bus on line 57 and woke to find that someone had set the 18-year-old's skirt on fire.
Others rushed to help, but Fleischman had already suffered second- and third-degree burns.
Parents such as Candace Turtle are just praying for a speedy recovery so that Fleischman can return to school to "take math tests and finish applying to college."
NBC Bay Area's Christie Smith, Joe Rosato Jr. contributed to this report.