A 16-year-old boy in California's San Fernando Valley was physically attacked this week by bullies in his high school who accused him of having the coronavirus — simply because he is Asian American. It is just the latest episode in a spree of racist incidents linked to the global health emergency over the novel coronavirus, now named COVID-19.
"He went to the hospital originally, and went to the emergency room," Robin Toma, the executive director of the L.A. County Human Relations Commission, said in a joint news conference with Los Angeles County public officials on Thursday. "They were taking MRIs to ensure he didn't have a concussion or other harm."
According to CBS Los Angeles, officials released neither the name of the student's school nor any further details of the attack, noting only that Los Angeles police are now investigating.
"Our goal is to send out accurate information to all of our 80 districts, reaching over 2 million children," said Debra Duardo, L.A. County Superintendent of Schools. "To tell them that there is no need for excessive fear, that there is very minimal risk of contracting the coronavirus, and that we will not tolerate any type of bullying."
There have been 15 confirmed cases of coronavirus in the U.S. to date, including eight cases in California. Those patients are being treated in medical isolation, and officials stressed the virus is not currently spreading in the community.
And while the outbreak originated in China, it has nothing to do with being Asian.
"Anyone that discriminates in that manner and puts out false information should be investigated," L.A. County Supervisor Hilda Solis said in Thursday's news conference. "And I understand the FBI is launching an investigation."
There have been other incidents around the country where Asian Americans have reported being targeted over unfounded fears of coronavirus.
In Austin, Texas, last week, Amy Wong Mok, the president of the Asian American Cultural Center, told CBS Austin that when one of her staff members coughed at a local fitness center, other patrons left.
"She just coughed a little bit because she was coming in from the cold air and then people left," Mok said. "Just a small cough and the people just left, left her like the plague." She added, "At least they left. They didn't attack her."
In a similar incident, a Vietnamese-American eighth grader in Los Angeles named Dylan Muriano was sent to the nurse's office at his middle school on Wednesday because he coughed from swallowing water.
"He actually said to me, 'all the other students who are coughing, they don't get sent out.' But they're not Asian," the boy's mother, longtime L.A. news anchor Leyna Nguyen, told Fox 11.
To make matters worse, when the nurse cleared Muriano to return to his classroom, the eighth grader alleges that his peers teased him about having coronavirus.
This sort of outbreak-fueled anti-Asian racism also occurred in 2003 during the SARS virus scare. But public officials caution that it is neither based in fact, nor acceptable behavior.
"Many may be quick to assume that just because someone is Asian or from China that somehow they are more likely to be carriers of the virus," said Robin Toma of the L.A. County Human Relations Commission. "We need to speak out against this when we see it. We need to speak up, not be bystanders, be upstanders."
And as the L.A. County schools superintendent noted, the change in behavior needed likely starts with parents.
"Hate is something children learn," Debra Duardo said, as she stood with members of the Asian Pacific Policy and Planning Council. "It doesn't come naturally to them."