NEW YORK CITY — Two Senegalese-American middle school students were taken to the hospital on Friday after suffering a beating at the hands of their classmates, in an attack apparently motivated by fear of the Ebola virus that local lawmakers called a "hate crime."
The attack took place at Intermediate School 318 in the Bronx, where the students — brothers Abdou and Amedou Drame — are enrolled in the eighth and sixth grades. The students recently arrived to the United States from Senegal. Both of the boys suffered minor injuries and were released from the hospital later on Friday.
The Ebola virus has killed nearly 5,000 people in West Africa and one in the United States. Only one case was ever documented in Senegal, the country of origin of the bullied children. The World Health Organization declared the nation to be free of Ebola on Oct. 18, after no new cases were documented in 42 days — twice the virus's incubation period.
Speaking at a Monday press conference at the Harlem headquarters of the Association of Senegalese in America, Rep. José Serrano and State Sen. Bill Perkins called the attack a "hate crime" and warned of rising discrimination and xenophobia against West Africans in the wake of the Ebola epidemic.
"Ebola is a bullying crisis in our public schools and in our charter schools," said Perkins. "Our mayor needs to take some steps so that children in our public schools know what Ebola really is and don't go out and attack their fellow students."
Ousmane Drame, the boys' father, explained that the children were born in the United States, but had been sent to Senegal to learn French. The boys arrived in the city three weeks ago and were initially welcomed by their classmates. But as misinformation about the Ebola virus spread, the school became an increasingly hostile environment for the Drame brothers.
Then, on Friday at lunchtime, a large group of students approached Abdou, the younger brother, and began chanting "Ebola! Ebola!" The group then attacked the boy, the father said, kicking and punching him in the face. When Amedou came to help his younger brother, he was also beaten.
"We bring our children here to grow up with your children," Drame said at the news conference. " We teach that America is for them, that America will welcome them."
Charles Cooper, the chair of the African Advisory Council, a Bronx-based advocacy organization, said that the school had not immediately prepared an incident report on the attack, and criticized the administrators for not intervening to stop the beating.
"Where were the administrators?" Cooper said. "Where were the teachers?"
In a statement released on Monday, the New York City Department of Education said that a report had been issued and that it was taking actions to protect African students.
"This incident has been reported, we are investigating and we take this matter very seriously," the statement said. "DOE School Safety staff are on site today to mediate this incident and ensure the safety and support of these students, school staff and their families."
The New York Police Department did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Also present at the news conference was Sokhna Seye, a Senegalese immigrant who owns a hairdressing shop in Harlem. She said that her 9-year-old daughter, who attends Dream Charter School in East Harlem, was afraid of dying of Ebola after her classmates consistently refused to touch her.
"She was born here," Seye said of her daughter. "She has only been to Africa once, when she was 2 months old. She does not have Ebola."
Seye added that her business has suffered greatly since the beginning of the crisis, as long-time customers avoid African shops for fear of contracting the disease.
Rep. Serrano, whose district includes the part of the Bronx where the attack took place, asked people to remember that it is very difficult to contract the disease.
"People who know better than us have already told us that you need to be in a very particular situation to contract Ebola," Serrano said. "You can't get it from going to school with someone."
Speaking at the sidelines of the conference, Perkins sharply criticized the decision by governors Chris Christie and Andrew Cuomo to impose a mandatory quarantine on travelers arriving from West Africa in New Jersey and New York.
"I was disappointed when Gov. Cuomo teamed up with the governor of New Jersey for that idea," Perkins said. "It was an opportunistic idea, and I'm glad he has walked back from it. It added to the stigmatization of the African community, and was a diss at Mayor de Blasio and President Obama."
Serrano was also critical of the decision, albeit in softer terms.
"Each governor and each leader has the right to decide how to deal with the crisis," Serrano said, speaking in Spanish. "But I would have liked that they had coordinated better with the federal government. We can't afford to enter a panic."
Only one case of Ebola has been confirmed in New York City, when Dr. Craig Spencer, a member of Doctors Without Borders who had been treating patients in Africa, tested positive for the virus on Thursday.
A 5-year-old child from Guinea was being tested for the virus at Bellevue Hospital after presenting some of the symptoms associated with the disease, with test results expected later on Monday.