The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Asian student verbally harassed, spat at outside Fairfax middle school

Four teenagers verbally harassed an Asian teenager and spat in his direction outside a Northern Virginia middle school this week, Fairfax County police said Thursday.

The incident took place on the campus of Longfellow Middle School in Fairfax around 6:20 p.m. Monday, according to the father of the Asian teen, who asked that he not be named to protect his family’s privacy. The father reported the incident to Fairfax County police and to officials with Fairfax County Public Schools, where his son is enrolled.

His son, who is 15, was walking to practice soccer at a field near Longfellow by himself on Monday, which he often does. He paused to watch a group of kids playing baseball nearby and was just leaving when four teenagers, whom he did not recognize, approached, his father said.

The boys began hissing insults. “What are you f---ing looking at with your small eyes?” one asked, the 15-year-old told his father.

The teen told his father another in the group added: “You should go back to your own country.”

The Asian student told his father at least two of the teenagers — the most aggressive ones — were White, and the other two appeared to be multiracial. Police said they range in age from 17 to 19.

The harassment outside Longfellow comes as racism and assaults against Asian Americans are spiking nationwide amid anti-Asian sentiment related to the pandemic — fueled, many argue, by the racist rhetoric of former president Donald Trump, who referred to the coronavirus as the “China virus” and the “kung flu.” Fear in Asian communities hit new highs after shootings in the Atlanta area claimed the lives of eight people, including six Asian women, earlier this month.

In the Longfellow incident, one of the teenagers spat at the Asian student, and “it hit right in front of my son’s shoes,” his father said. Another began to get closer, but his son backed away. The encounter lasted about two minutes, and his son emerged unhurt physically, the father said.

After discussing the incident with friends and Longfellow Middle School’s assistant principal, who urged him to report it to police, the teen’s father filed a report on Wednesday. Fairfax County police spokesman Anthony Guglielmi said detectives are working to determine the harassing teenagers’ identities. FCPS spokeswoman Helen Lloyd said officials with the school system of 180,000 are “investigating” if the youths are system students. She noted that the incident took place outside of school hours.

Jim Patrick, the principal of Longfellow, and Ellen Reilly, the principal of nearby McLean High School, wrote a joint message to families notifying them of the attack and denouncing anti-Asian hatred. They asked parents and students to report any racist acts to school principals or police.

“We are committed to ensuring safe spaces for all of our students and interrupting any experience that would cause pain and trauma as a result of racialized . . . violence,” Patrick and Reilly wrote.

The climate of terror and hatred has led some Asian parents to keep their children learning virtually — even as other students head back into classrooms that were shuttered for a year during the pandemic — because they worry children might be targeted inside schools or walking to and from campus. Although happening everywhere in the country, the trend is particularly pronounced in Fairfax County, where just over 30 percent of Asian families selected in-person learning for the spring.

That rate was by far the lowest reported among any racial group.

Asked about the Fairfax school system’s response to the incident at Longfellow, spokeswoman Lloyd pointed to a statement the district published in response to the Georgia massacre. The statement noted that “misinformation and xenophobic language” have led to targeting of Asian students and families within the county.

“It is our responsibility to ensure that all people are treated with dignity and humanity in our schools,” the statement reads. “These behaviors are more than being unkind and will not be tolerated.”

When asked whether reports of anti-Asian bullying have increased in Fairfax schools recently, Lloyd said, “We haven’t seen a noticeable rise.” Guglielmi of the Fairfax County police said his department has not seen “a major uptick” in crime against Asian Americans.

Guglielmi said police are concerned there could be underreporting of such incidents.

The father of the harassed teen said it is not the first time his son has experienced anti-Asian comments. Twice before over the past year, adults saw him practicing soccer alone on fields in McLean and hurled racist comments.

An elderly man told him not to practice there anymore because he would spread the coronavirus. In a separate incident, two people in their 30s or 40s told the 15-year-old to stay away from them because he might infect them with the virus.

Still, the father said his son has reiterated time and again, after every racist episode, that he doesn’t feel too bothered.

But his father wonders if he’s telling the full truth. And he is wondering whether he should continue letting his son practice soccer on his own.

“It’s a favorite place for him, he felt safe,” his father said of the Longfellow soccer field.

He added after a pause: “But it’s not safe anymore.”

As news of the harassment spread on social media, some Asian American families in the neighborhood were forced to reassess a community they had always seen as welcoming.

Mary Gordon, an Asian American mother of a student at Longfellow, said she learned about the incident when she checked Nextdoor and saw posts detailing the harassment. Her eighth-grade son attends the school, and she has a fourth-grader enrolled at a Fairfax elementary school. Both children are biracial, she said.

She was aware of the wave of anti-Asian hate but never expected it to hit this close to home.

“I am 47 years old. I was born here in this country, grew up [here], and I have to say, for the first time in my life, I am genuinely scared,” Gordon said.

Gordon said she is now planning to have “tough conversations about race” with her children. She will do her best to explain why racist attacks happen and how they should respond. She wants to urge her kids to “always speak up” for their rights, but she is afraid that advice might get them hurt.

She has not told her daughter, her youngest child, about the Longfellow incident because she does not want to scare the girl. But she did tell her son, the eighth-grader. She stuck close to the facts, speaking as neutrally as possible.

“Okay,” he said, and went back to watching a video.

But “I could tell in his eyes that it was a little painful for him,” Gordon said.

She hoped he was actually okay.