March Planned Tonight for Berkeley Teen Burned on Bus

By Tracey Taylor, Berkeleyside

Sasha Fleischman, Berkeley high school student whose clothing was set on fire while riding on a bus in Oakland. (Fundly)
Sasha Fleischman, Berkeley high school student whose clothing was set on fire while riding on a bus in Oakland. (Fundly)

Supporters of Sasha Fleischman, the 18-year-old Maybeck High School student who was set fire to while riding an AC Transit bus on Nov. 4, are planning a solidarity march tonight, Thursday, Nov. 14, on MacArthur Boulevard in Oakland. The group plans to tie rainbow ribbons to bus poles to add to those already placed there in recent days.

Meanwhile, in a letter to the Sequoia Elementary School community where he works as a kindergarten teacher, Sasha’s father, Karl Fleischman, said he did not want people to jump to conclusions about the motivations of the 16-year-old Oakland High School student who has been charged with a hate crime for setting fire to Sasha’s skirt. And a fundraising campaign to pay for the teenager’s medical bills was reopened yesterday after raising more than $20,000 in just a couple of days. 

Fleischman, a senior at the private Berkeley school who identifies as “agender,” was napping in the rear of a No. 57 AC Transit bus heading toward the family home in Oakland when 16-year-old Richard Thomas allegedly set the skirt Fleischman was wearing on fire, according to authorities.Berkeleyside-logo-small

Fleischman, with the help of other riders, was able to extinguish the flames but suffered second- and third-degree burns to the legs that require significant skin grafting. The victim is undergoing treatment at St. Francis Memorial Hospital’s Bothin Burn Center in San Francisco.

According to Karl Fleischman, his child is recovering well. “Sasha is now in stable condition and being very well cared for in a terrific burn center in San Francisco,” he wrote. “We have every reason to believe that Sasha will eventually be able to return to life as usual, although the recovery process will take some time,” he said.

Thomas was charged with a hate crime, aggravated mayhem and felony assault. He said he committed the crime “because he was homophobic,” according to notes taken by the Oakland Police Department when they interviewed him.

Karl Fleischman stressed in his letter to Sequoia School that assumptions about Thomas’ actions should be avoided.

“It’s really important to keep in mind that none of us can know the mind, motivations, or intentions of the person who set flame to Sasha’s clothing,” he wrote. “Oakland Police have a 16-year-old high school student in custody, based on video camera footage from the bus. As far as I know, police are the only people who have viewed the footage. I certainly haven’t, so I can only guess at what happened. At this point, I choose to assume that this kid was playing with fire, and that he gravely underestimated the consequences of that. Others may make different assumptions, but it’s important to remember that they are all just that: assumptions. So when I talk to my students about this, I will emphasize the importance of fire safety: “Don’t play with matches or lighters.” And of course, “Stop, drop, and roll if your clothing catches fire.”

Fleischman’s family has reopened an online donation page to continue to raise money for the teen. Last week, funds poured in over just a couple of days and the family shut down the site after reaching a goal of $20,000, but repeated inquiries prompted the family to reopen it.

Using Sasha’s preferred pronoun of “they” rather than “he” or “she,” a post on the Fundly site, which was set up by Sasha’s cousin, explained that Sasha’s parents plan on using any funds that go beyond Sasha’s medical and rehabilitation needs to support organizations that promote education, tolerance, and non-violence. “They will decide on the final use of these funds when Sasha is more able to make such decisions,” they wrote. “They want Sasha to feel empowered by the support from the community at large, and to have a significant say in how the funds are used.”

Sasha’s mother, Debbie Crandall, told NBC Bay Area News that the community had come out and supported the family. “We just feel loved,” she said.

Supporters who want to march today will meet at 5:30 p.m. tonight at the corner of Park and MacArthur boulevards and walk to Ardley Avenue, according to the Oakland Tribune. Marchers are encouraged to wear bright colors and bring colorful ribbons to attach to the bus poles. A dinner at St. Paul Lutheran Church at 1658 Excelsior Ave. will follow.

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