The students and teachers at Oakland High School don’t want to be known for homophobia or hate.
So, ever since one of the school’s students – a 16-year-old junior – was charged with a hate crime for allegedly setting an “agender” teen’s skirt on fire during an AC Transit bus ride on Nov. 4, many at the school have been trying to right the wrong.
They’ve passed envelopes, collecting $800 for the family of Sasha Fleischman, who still remains at St. Francis Hospital in San Francisco with burned legs. They’ve attended no-bullying assemblies and refreshed themselves on their LGBT “Straightlaced” curriculum.
And, on Thursday evening, many of the 1,600 students and teachers marched with the community in a “Stroll for Sasha.” They continued along the bus route where the teen was burned, now decorated with rainbow ribbons. During their lunch hour, they created "NoH8" and "Be Yourself" posters with funky music blaring in the background.
“We just feel heartbreak,” said teacher Jessie Muldoon, who along with several others, including the school’s Gay Straight Alliance supervisor, Amy Wilder, has been spearheading efforts in the wake of the attack on Fleischman. “We are doing this because we want to get the message out that Oakland High is a safe place for LGBT people and that we don’t tolerate hate on campus. ”
Muldoon did not comment on the teen charged with the hate crime, aggravated mayhem and felony assault.
In an unusual move, Alameda County District Atorney Nancy O'Malley charged Richard Thomas, as an adult in public. A police officer indicated Thomas acknowledged he was “homophobic” before Fleischman’s skirt was set on fire with a lighter. But Thomas' attorney, William H. Du Bois, told NBC Bay Area on Thursday that what happened has been "misconstrued" and that his client "can't even spell the word homophobic." Thomas is scheduled to enter a plea on Friday.
Fleischman, whose given name is Luke, is a senior at Berkeley’s Maybeck High School who identifies as “agender” or non-binary gender, designations sometimes adopted by individuals who see themselves as neither male nor female.
Fleischman prefers to be referred to as “they,” instead of “he” or “she,” and realizes that that the plural pronoun is confusing - which is the point, his parents said. The 18-year-old often likes to dress in a tie, vest and a skirt, something that makes his father smile, according to a heartwarming open letter Karl Fleischman wrote.
Karl Fleischman and his wife, Debbie Crandall, were at the march, noting that their child’s condition is as “well as can be expected,” without going into more detail. They said the teen may be home by Thanksgiving.
"This is really about letting people be who they are and not being afraid of that," Karl Fleischman said at the march, drums beating behind him. " I think there’s a lot of fear of the other anything different.”
The elder Fleischman also said he was touched by all the outpouring of support. That support has included more than $20,000 in fundraising efforts to pay for Fleischman’s medical bills, the $1,300 raised by Oakland High along with a grant from the teachers union, and the grassroots creation of “Rainbow Road,” where rainbow ribbons are sprouting up along the bus route where Fleischman's skirt was set ablaze.
"To hear that someone’s set on fire. It sounds outrageous on its face," Karl Fleischman said, "but at the same time we don’t know what the motivations were or what the thinking was."
That route was part of Thursday's “Stroll for Sasha,” where people gathered at Oakland High School, 1023 MacArthur Blvd., at 5:30 p.m. and then walk to Ardley Avenue.
Aside from the Fleischmans, a representative from the Gender Spectrum was invited to educate people about nontraditional gender identities, said Krista Luchessi, a member of St. Paul Lutheran Church, who lives in the neighborhood and organized the stroll because she wanted to do something against hate. After the event, Luchessi and church members put on a free pasta dinner.
“Oakland has a lot of violence,” Luchessi told NBC Bay Area. “And violence can’t be the last word. It has to be love. It shouldn’t matter what you’re wearing. Sasha is courageous and his family is amazingly beautiful. I’m hoping this will heal us all in a positive way.”
NBC Bay Area's Jodi Hernandez and Cheryl Hurd contributed to this report.