White man charged with hate crime after allegedly punching Black sixth grader

Whatcom Middle School (Bellingham Schools)
Whatcom Middle School (Bellingham Schools)

A white man was charged with a hate crime after he allegedly punched a Black sixth-grade boy in Bellingham, Washington, while the student was on a field trip.

Paul Jonathan Bittner, 42, was booked in Whatcom County jail on June 12 on charges of assault of a child in the second degree and malicious harassment, a hate crime offense in Washington, booking records show. His bail was set at $500,000.

Court records, obtained by The Bellingham Herald, revealed that the unnamed 11-year-old suffered a chipped tooth.

Students were walking to the Pickford Film Center on a field trip when “a community member physically assaulted and used racist comments towards one of our students,” the Whatcom Middle School principal Mischelle Darragh said in a statement.

While the middle school students were walking on the sidewalk, Bittner crossed the street, approached the child, and “without warning,” pushed the student. Bittner then made a comment along the lines of: “Are you gonna talk to a white man like that?” The 42-year-old then punched the student, a Bellingham Police Department spokesperson told The Independent.

School staff “secured the child and rushed him away from the assailant” before calling 911 and also walking over to the police department for help, the spokesperson said.

As Bittner was being handcuffed and placed in the police patrol car, he made racial slurs and “made a statement indicating people should assault them.”

In the aftermath of the attack, city officials released a video to address the incident. “Hate is not welcome here in Bellingham,” Police Chief Rebecca Mertzig declared.

Bellingham Mayor Kim Lund called the incident “intolerable.”

“Our hearts go out to the child who experienced this terrible assault and the children who witnessed it. We are thankful for the adults who stepped in to protect the children involved,” she added.

Principal Darragh addressed the assault in a statement posted on the school’s website: “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.”

“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,” the principal wrote.

The school district superintendent Greg Baker confirmed that the assailant was “charged with a hate crime.”

He issued a statement denouncing the racist encounter: “Bellingham Public Schools is absolutely opposed to anti-Black racism, and racism in all forms. Our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion is not just a statement but a Promise to all students. We recognize that racism is deeply rooted and affects our systems and the lives of many individuals and families in profound ways. It is a collective responsibility to address and dismantle these injustices.”