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News / Northwest

‘Angry and shocked’: Hate crime alleged after Bellingham boy assaulted during middle-school trip

By Robert Mittendorf, The Bellingham Herald
Published: June 14, 2024, 8:04am

BELLINGHAM — A Bellingham child was injured in an alleged hate crime as a group of students returned from a field trip Wednesday afternoon in downtown Bellingham, police and school officials said.

The Whatcom Middle School sixth-grader, whose name was not released, was punched in the face by an assailant who apparently targeted the boy because of his race.

School officials and police did not provide information about the boy’s injuries or whether he required medical attention. A probable cause statement filed Thursday in Whatcom County Superior Court said the boy, 11, suffered a chipped tooth in the attack.

Paul Jonathan Bittner, 42, was being held Thursday in the Whatcom County Jail on suspicion of second-degree assault and malicious harassment, which is a hate crime.

Prosecutors asked for $1 million bail in the case. Superior Court Commissioner Pro Tem Daniel McGreevy set bail at $500,000 at Bittner’s first appearance Thursday afternoon.

Nearly 30 people packed a small room in the basement of the County Courthouse, where bail hearings generally are held with only one or two people in attendance.

Family members of the victim were joined by members of the Whatcom Racial Equity Commission and key members of Bellingham’s small Black community, including Jason McGill of Northwest Youth Services, Teejay Morris, founder of Bellingham Unity Committee, and former Bellingham Councilmember Kristina Michele Martens.

Also attending were Mayor Kim Lund, Police Chief Rebecca Mertzig and Councilman Jace Cotton. Lund and Mertzig discussed the incident in a video posted to the city’s social media.

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Lund denounced the attack in an interview with The Bellingham Herald at her office.

“Yesterday was the first meeting of the Whatcom Racial Equity Commission and when some members of our community are questioning whether this work still needs to be done, events like this underscore just how important this work is.” Lund said.

Whatcom Middle School Principal Mischelle Darragh told school parents, students and staff about the incident in an email Wednesday.

“We are angry and shocked by what happened today. These events are extremely upsetting for everyone at our school and beyond. We are wrapping around our students and doing all we can to support them,” Darragh said in the email, which a school district official shared with The Herald.

Bellingham Police spokeswoman Megan Peters told The Herald that the attack happened as the students were walking past the police station at 505 Grand Ave. The attack was captured on video camera at the police station, according to the probable cause statement.

“School staff witnessed the assault, intervened, and summoned law enforcement by both calling (911) and coming to the front door of (the police station). Staff also secured the child and rushed him away from the assailant,” Peters told The Herald in an email.

Darragh praised everyone who stepped in to protect the boy, who is Black.

“I want to call out the swift and thoughtful response of our teachers and students, who were able to quickly care for the student who was attacked and ensure the safety of the rest of our students,” Darragh said.

“We will have additional counseling support available to all students as long as it’s needed. Today, sixth graders will be concluding the day with a classroom circle where students can share their feelings and concerns,” she said.

Whatcom Middle parent Kena Greer Brashear told The Herald that cards of support for the victim could be dropped off at the school’s main office.

Court documents said that the students were walking north on Grand Avenue near the police station when Bittner approached from the street and slipped into step with the group.

Bittner pushed a student and then said, “Are you gonna talk to a white man like that?” Peters told The Herald. Then Bittner punched the boy in the face.

Police arrested Bittner a few blocks away, according to court documents.

After he was handcuffed, Bittner was placed in a patrol car, where he made additional racial slurs, according to Peters and court documents.