It started back in middle school when two Amherst brothers of Palestinian ancestry were picked on by another pair of brothers. They were taunted with suggestions that they were related to former al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden.
When the self-proclaimed Islamic State, or ISIS, rose to prominence about two years ago, Jameel and Adam Siam were accused of having connections to that terrorist group.
As Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump called for a pause in letting Muslims into the United States, the Siam brothers say, they started experiencing more persecution at Williamsville East High School, mainly from those same two brothers from middle school.
Tensions came to a head last week when the older of their alleged tormenters posted an image that featured opposing images of the American flag and an Islamic flag with the title “Siam Slayer” on Instagram.
The Siam brothers demanded that he take it down, and a fight broke out in the commons at the high school. All three were suspended.
The parents of Jameel, 16, and Adam, 15, and their attorneys say the teens are being forced to defend themselves against anti-Muslim bullies, whose continual harassment has been going on for years.
The suspensions haven’t brought an end to the troubling incidents. Just this weekend, the bullying moved from the schoolyard to their front yard, when their house was vandalized. At about 3 a.m. Saturday, the Siam family’s East Amherst residence was egged and a front storm door window shattered by a thrown rock.
“First, the harassment was with Osama bin Laden, then with ISIS, and now it has been getting even worse with Trump,” said Rehab Siam, mother of the teenagers. “We’re not denying the fight, but the school didn’t do anything. The Instagram stayed up for two days after the fight.”
Now, the Siam brothers face the possibility of expulsion from the school district, and that is unfair, according to attorney Michael B. Berger and Dr. Khalid J. Qazi, a spokesman and founding member of the Muslim Public Affairs Council of WNY.
The FBI has been notified of what is going on and recently attended an Islamic community meeting regarding the situation, Qazi said, adding that Islamic youngsters are being bullied at some area schools.
“If the local police determine there has been a hate crime, the FBI will certainly be involved,” Qazi said of the harassment and social media posting.
Rehab Siam acknowledges that her sons’ behavior has not been perfect but that they were provoked into taking action to protect themselves because of the incendiary nature of the social media posting.
Molly M. Deacon, another attorney representing the Siam family, said the posting is a clear case of cyberbullying.
“And it becomes the district’s problem when it affects kids at school,” Deacon said.
Berger said the district has been aware of the persistent turmoil between the two sets of brothers and has failed to take appropriate action, allowing it to escalate into a situation involving law enforcement.
“I think when you see anything that is threatening and incendiary, you react by protecting yourself. If someone uses the word ‘slayer’ and my name, I’m going to feel threatened and defend myself, and sometimes defensive behavior can be seen as offensive behavior,” Berger said.
Amherst Police Capt. Enzio G. Villalta, chief of the town’s Detective Bureau, said Tuesday that investigations are underway into both the school fight and the damage to the Siam home.
Williamsville School Superintendent Scott G. Martzloff declined to discuss specifics of the situation, explaining that he was prohibited by law from revealing details on student discipline. But he did issue a statement:
“The district takes harassment, bullying, insensitive or intolerant behavior very seriously. We are committed to prevention, and are continuously focused on outreach and education for students, families and staff. We remain vigilant and respond immediately to any and all violations of our code of conduct. Any behavior that compromises our commitment to a safe and caring school environment is unacceptable.”
The Siam brothers were initially given a five-day suspension, and the district scheduled a hearing that could result in their expulsion. The hearing, originally scheduled for Monday, has been rescheduled to Friday morning because Berger requested more preparation time.
In the meantime, the brothers remain suspended.
Berger also said the district has refused to give him a surveillance video of the fight.
“In order to have a fair and objective hearing as provided in the district’s policy, it seems to me all of the evidence should be provided. How can you prepare a case?” Berger said. “Is it going to be an adversarial hearing or a fair hearing?”
Efforts to speak with the parents of the two other brothers in this conflict were unsuccessful. The Buffalo News left notes at their East Amherst residence requesting an interview.
With the possibility of permanent removal from the high school, Berger said, there is a lot at stake for the Siam brothers.
A better way to resolve the situation would be to bring together all the parties involved to reach an acceptable outcome, “rather than letting this continue to fester,” Berger said.
Qazi said he brought the situation to Martzloff’s attention in a Dec. 1 email that stated in part:
“In this particular case taunting students based on their faith tradition, threatening them with physical harm and accusing them of supporting or being affiliated with terrorist groups like ISIS etc., if true, is absolutely unacceptable. We, as a school district and community, cannot allow that to happen. I am sure you will agree with that.”
Qazi said Tuesday that Martzloff responded by assuring him of a swift investigation.
“We have had community meetings in Amherst about this and an FBI representative has been present,” Qazi said. “My role is to help resolve this with as little contention as possible, so our students can attend school safely. The school administration cannot allow this to fester.”