Representatives from a Washington D.C.-based Muslim organization were in Panama City on Thursday for the arraignment of a school bus driver accused of an anti-Muslim hate crime.

Thomas Plaisted, 60, pleaded not guilty to two counts of evidencing prejudice while committing an offense. He was arrested after an incident in May in which he allegedly cursed and spit at Muslim children in a Lynn Haven fast-food restaurant.

The Council on American-Islamic Relations held a news conference before the arraignment, demanding that prosecutors not waiver on the felony charge and that the Bay District School Board fire Plaisted.

Ahmed Bedier, executive director of CAIR’s Tampa chapter, said the group is worried because the number of anti-Muslim incidents in Florida has been increasing, from 112 in 2005 to 167 reported last year.

“We’re concerned about the escalation of these incidents,” he said. “We don’t want to wait until it gets worse.”

Plaisted could not be reached for comment Thursday.

According to Bay County Sheriff’s Office reports, Plaisted was in a Taco Bell on State 77 when a Muslim mother and her children entered.

While the kids sat at a table, 36-year-old Asma Sidani, who was wearing a traditional Muslim scarf, went to the counter to order. That’s when Plaisted cursed and made threatening gestures at the children, uttered anti-Muslim epithets, then spit food on Sidani’s 5-year-old son, deputies reported.

Plaisted also shoved Sidani’s 11-year-old son and left after customers and employees confronted him, according to his arrest report.

Sidani called Lynn Haven police after the incident, but two officers refused to take her complaint or interview witnesses, so she went to the Bay County Sheriff’s Office instead.

Lynn Haven Police Chief David Messer said an internal investigation showed the officers violated departmental policy by not properly investigating. Sgt. James Smith and Officer Chris Faircloth received letters of reprimand.

“I felt that they did not act professionally, and I felt that they did not act courteously,” Messer said. “There were steps they could have taken, and this thing could have been a whole lot easier.

“We’re sorry for the whole incident. I can assure you it’s not going to happen again.”

Bedier said Thursday that the investigation and reprimands were a “step in the right direction” but that a third-party investigation was necessary to determine whether the officers failed to act out of racial bias.

He said other officers also acted unprofessionally when Sidani’s husband called to complain, offering to give them Plaisted’s address and photo.

“He felt like they were baiting him,” Bedier said. “There are a lot of unanswered questions that this reprimand doesn’t address.”


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