Man accused of hate crime attack against Bellingham boy during school trip enters initial plea

A man accused of targeting, punching and injuring an 11-year-old Bellingham boy who was returning from a field trip with his class in downtown Bellingham last week has pleaded not guilty to felony hate crime and assault charges.

Paul Jonathan Bittner, 42, was charged June 14 in Whatcom County Superior Court with one count of a hate crime and one count of second-degree assault of a child. Bittner’s hate crime charge states that he “maliciously and intentionally” assaulted another person because of the perception of their race, while his assault crime charge states that he intentionally assaulted a child under the age of 13 and “thereby recklessly inflict(ed) substantial bodily harm” upon the child, according to court records.

Bittner pleaded not guilty to the charges at his arraignment hearing Friday morning, June 21.

Bittner was arrested and booked into the downtown Whatcom County Jail shortly before 2:30 p.m. June 12. He remains incarcerated in lieu of $500,000 bail, which was set at his first appearance hearing on June 13.

Similar to the June 13 hearing, more than 70 community members packed a small fifth-floor courtroom in the Whatcom County Courthouse on Friday morning in support of the child and his family. Extra benches were brought into the courtroom for people to stand on in the back, and at least nine chairs were set along the middle aisle to provide extra seating. Additional benches were pulled into the hallway outside, while the large, double doors were kept open for people in the hallway to watch and hear the proceedings.

Bittner’s arraignment was one of the most well-attended arraignment hearings that has happened in Whatcom County Superior Court in at least five years — so much so that court and judicial officials were concerned they may have been running afoul of capacity rules for the room.

Whatcom County Superior Court Commissioner Lisa Keeler accepted the not-guilty pleas of Paul Jonathan Bittner, 42, on June 21, 2024. Bittner was charged on June 14 with one count of a hate crime and one count of second-degree assault of a child.
Whatcom County Superior Court Commissioner Lisa Keeler accepted the not-guilty pleas of Paul Jonathan Bittner, 42, on June 21, 2024. Bittner was charged on June 14 with one count of a hate crime and one count of second-degree assault of a child.

Bittner’s case was originally called first, but he had not yet made it to the jail courtroom, so two other cases were called beforehand. Members of the public let out groans and sighs as the court announced it would be calling other cases while Bittner made his way to the converted jail courtroom he eventually appeared from. The announcement that Bittner was not yet ready for his hearing was made following nearly a 45-minute delay to the hearing’s original start time.

When Bittner’s case was called, he appeared with a public defense attorney via video conference dressed in a yellow jumpsuit with his wrists shackled at his sides.

Members of the local Black community and others watched as Bittner pleaded not guilty to the racially-motivated attack two days after the Juneteenth holiday. A public defense attorney who appeared with Bittner for purposes of Friday’s hearing entered his not guilty pleas.

Paul Jonathan Bittner, 42, pleaded not guilty at his arraignment hearing on June 21, 2024. Bittner was charged on June 14 with one count of a hate crime and one count of second-degree assault of a child. His jury trial is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 12.
Paul Jonathan Bittner, 42, pleaded not guilty at his arraignment hearing on June 21, 2024. Bittner was charged on June 14 with one count of a hate crime and one count of second-degree assault of a child. His jury trial is tentatively scheduled for Aug. 12.

In addition to the child’s family, community members in attendance at Friday’s hearing included Bellingham City Council Member Edwin “Skip” Williams and former City Council Member Kristina Michele Martens. Both made history in 2022 as the first Black man and woman to be elected to the council. Other members in attendance included Jason McGill and others of Northwest Youth Services, Michelle Harmeier of the Bellingham Queer Collective, members and founders of the Whatcom Racial Equity Commission, members of the Whatcom Coalition for Anti-Racist Education, members of Connect Ferndale, Markis Dee of Serenity Outreach Services and more.

Some members of the public wore black T-shirts with white lettering that read “Together is Better.”

Whatcom County Superior Court Commissioner Lisa Keeler accepted Bittner’s not guilty pleas and tentatively set his jury trial for Aug. 12. He will have a preliminary status hearing on July 17.

Keeler also re-issued a no-contact order put in place between Bittner and the child. Bittner also signed a declaration stating he had no weapons or firearms to surrender, which the court found him to be in compliance with.

In total, the actual hearing itself took nine minutes.

In a statement sent Friday to The Herald, Whatcom County senior deputy public defender Matthew Palmer, who is representing Bittner, said they are in the process of gathering records for the case.

“We may be able to provide responsive comments after we have time to carefully review records and discovery. Broadly speaking, our whole community, and nation, is safer when everyone has access to meaningful psychiatric care,” Palmer said in the Friday statement.

The Bellingham Herald has reached out to the Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office for comment.

The assault

The boy was returning to school Wednesday afternoon, June 12, with his sixth-grade Whatcom Middle School class following a walking field trip they had taken to the Pickford Film Center in downtown Bellingham.

The students were walking north on Grand Avenue near the county courthouse when Bittner, who was also walking north, appeared to follow alongside the students. Not long after, Bittner slipped into step with the group and began walking directly in front of the boy, who was speaking with his white friend, according to court records.

Bittner, who is white, then turned around and punched the boy, who is African American, in the face. The boy suffered “immense pain” in his face and a chipped tooth, court documents state.

After Bittner punched the child, he then shoved the student and said “are you gonna talk to a white man like that?” court records state.

School staff members quickly separated Bittner from the group following the attack. He was found and detained shortly after the assault in the 200 block of Prospect Street. Police said Bittner was “generally uncooperative” and refused to speak about the incident, court documents state.

Bittner also reportedly used racial slurs while speaking with officers when he was detained in Bellingham police patrol vehicles during the initial investigation.

Several witnesses later confirmed Bittner in a police lineup as the person who assaulted the student. The attack was also captured on surveillance video from the Bellingham police station, court documents show.

In an interview with Bellingham police, the boy told officers he believed the random assault occurred because of his race. He and Bittner do not know one another and had never met, according to court records.

No place for hate

In an interview with media following the court hearing, the boy’s father, DeVante Blow, said he was at his office when he received a phone call from his son informing him of the assault.

Blow said he initially thought maybe his son had been involved in a “schoolyard fight,” but quickly learned that his child had been punched in the face by an adult man who had used racial slurs during the attack. In less than 15 minutes, Blow was at his son’s school.

Blow said the slurs Bittner is accused of using were one of the most disappointing things about the entire situation.

“For so long, I’ve been trying to protect my son from that specific thing. That’s the reason why we’re here in Washington, and that sense of safety was probably taken for a little bit, but the community support has definitely reassured us,” he said. “I was hoping that this would be the turnout and the community has not disappointed.”

Blow and his family, who are originally from Whidbey Island, moved to Bellingham in 2020. He said they were deciding between Texas and Bellingham, but ultimately decided that “this is home.”

Blow said prior to this incident, his experience has generally been positive while living in Bellingham. He said the assault on his child is the “most impactful” negative thing that has happened to their family since moving here. He also said he was surprised this occurred, and that this event was one of the most blatant and overt pieces of racism that he has seen or experienced while living in Washington state.

Despite that, he said the ways in which the community has shown up and provided support has been amazing.

“That’s really been the difference in this whole thing,” he said. “When I look around, it’s not just a room full of African American people, but a conglomerate of people and really, that’s what makes a difference. We feel safe, we feel seen, and hate has no place here.”

Blow said his son is doing well. He is attending therapy and will be receiving some dental work, adding that “outside of that, his spirits are high.”

When asked what message he had for Bittner, Blow said he and his son share the same sentiment.

“We don’t hate Mr. Bittner, we hate what he did. And we hope that the time that he serves hopefully for what he has done, he will be rehabilitated and Bellingham will be safe,” he said.

Blow said he hopes his son will be able to share a story of forgiveness with his peers and friends, and tell of how the Whatcom County community has shown up for him and his family. He said his son, whom he called a “social butterfly,” has enjoyed the numerous cards and letters of support that have been provided.

He said this incident is a wake-up call.

“We can’t be lulled to sleep. Things like this and people like this and hate is still around, and so we need to stand up and be vocal about it. At any sights or notes of any hatred, we stand up and we kick it out of here,” Blow said. “We move together and we move with community. We speak out loud about what has happened, but we make sure that nobody else is affected by hate. So we’re advocates.”

Work to do

Martens, the former city council member and co-founder of the Whatcom Racial Equity Commission, echoed Blow’s statements in that there is still work to be done to dismantle racism in Whatcom County and the U.S.

She said while the attack on the boy was a giant macroaggression, there are still microaggressions that happen at every level on a daily basis for people of color living in Whatcom County. She said it’s great that people show up to Juneteenth celebrations, to other events celebrating communities of color and to the courthouse hearings in solidarity, but that those actions are performative. Martens, who is Black, encouraged people to keep attending, but said people also need to sit with themselves and identify the microaggressions they may be engaging in and the ways they may be upholding systemic racism.

Bellingham City Councilwoman Kristina Michele Martens, left, and Shu-Ling Zhao were key members of a committee that sought public input and outlined how the Racial Equity Commission would work.
Bellingham City Councilwoman Kristina Michele Martens, left, and Shu-Ling Zhao were key members of a committee that sought public input and outlined how the Racial Equity Commission would work.

“Yes, this is a huge problem that the community has to deal with. But we also have to reckon with ourselves. What are the smaller things that are happening every single day that lead people in and around our community to think that then this leap is okay?” Martens said in referring to the hate crime assault. “So keep going and bringing more friends to those events, but also really sit and reflect in all of the things that you don’t know you’re doing every day that are contributing to upholding the systemic racism.”

Martens said she too was attacked in a similar manner when she was 11 years old, and that she understood the way the world has shifted for the boy and his family. It was this experience, in part, that made her attend the hearing Friday.

“I found that especially in Bellingham, things are better when we come together. So anytime there’s an option to show up and support anyone, but specifically this family that is kind of the forefront right now or the front page of the work we still have to do in our community, I’ll be there every time,” she said. “I don’t know a single person of color that something like this hasn’t happened to. So it’s like a really dark rite of passage, to fully understand what can happen to you still in 2024 because of your skin color.”

Messages of support

Bellingham Mayor Kim Lund, Bellingham Police Chief Rebecca Mertzig and Bellingham Public Schools Superintendent Greg Baker all issued statements June 13 denouncing the attack.

The school district collected cards, letters and messages of support and solidarity for the student and his family at the district office at 1985 Barkley Boulevard in Bellingham. Some schools created larger posters with messages of love and support that were displayed in the Whatcom Middle School lobby throughout the last days of the school year, Bellingham Public Schools spokesperson Dana Smith told The Herald.

Most of the cards and posters were collected and presented in a large basket to the family at a gather at the middle school Friday afternoon following the court hearing, Smith said. She said the district will continue to collect cards and will ensure they get to the student and his family.

The district provided additional counselors while school was still in session. Small reflection groups and individual counseling were also offered. The district values the family’s direct input on what they and the student need, and will continue to check in regularly so the district’s supports include and honor their input and voices, Smith said.

“Community members have expressed outrage and frustration that this happened in our community, and the event complicates feelings of safety and security for Black children and community members, especially as our students move into the summer months,” Smith said in a statement sent to The Herald. “The community has come together to show support in multiple ways, from showing up for the student and family with meals and small gifts and offering healing resources to standing in solidarity at the courthouse hearings.”

“Additionally, the community response highlights the importance of our schools and district continuing and emphasizing anti-racist education and culturally responsive education, policies, and learning environments,” Smith added.

Connect Ferndale — a community organization that works to cultivate growth, connection and inclusion through cultural events, learning opportunities and more — also held a card-writing campaign on Thursday, June 20. Members of the public were invited to come to FrinGe Brewing in Ferndale to “make a card and write a note of love and support for this young man and his family.”

Members of the community handed a stack of colorful cards to the student’s parents following Bittner’s arraignment hearing.

Sense of safety

Over the weekend the Whatcom Coalition for Anti-Racist Education issued a letter calling the community to action. Whatcom CARE is a grassroots organization of parents, caregivers and educators working to educate, inform and advocate for anti-racism, inclusion and equity in classroom communities, according to its website.

The organization took issue with Bittner’s bail amount set at his first appearance hearing last week. The Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney’s Office requested Bittner’s bail be set at $1 million, but a Superior Court Pro Tem Commissioner ultimately decided to set it at $500,000. Whatcom CARE said in its June 15 community letter that it was sending a letter to Whatcom County’s Superior Court judges asking them to revisit Bittner’s bail amount.

“Make no mistake, what this child experienced, in the place his parents believed to be one of the safest places in the world for him, was a hate crime,” Whatcom CARE’s community letter stated. “Nothing can restore a sense of safety for an 11-year-old child who experienced such violence. That sense of safety has now been taken away from him, but we can stand in solidarity to create safe spaces — and it is imperative that we do so.”

The letter called on the Whatcom County community to not cast this attack aside as an isolated incident, or to say that “Bellingham is generally a safe place for Black people and other POC (people of color).” Whatcom CARE said the 11-year-old boy “is not alone in feeling unsafe and treated differently by their peers, teachers, and strangers on the street.”

The letter continued by saying that Whatcom CARE has heard of incidents from students, parents and teachers about racially motivated language, actions and incidents aimed at students of color who attend public schools throughout the county. The organization said it was calling out such microaggressions, negligence and discrimination. Children of color deserve to feel safe in their schools and communities, the organization’s letter stated.

“Yard signs, commissions, and promises are not enough. We need real action in our schools and neighborhoods. We will continue to uplift students of color and their communities through connection to safe spaces, supporting projects that center Black and Brown joy, facilitating classroom discussions, offering anti-racist classroom tool kits, and providing bystander training, as well as through advocacy at personal, community, and legislative levels,” the letter stated. “We invite all our neighbors and community members to join us in taking action against racism of all kinds in Whatcom County.”