After years of decline, the number of reported hate crimes in Orange County shot up last year, with most targeting people because of their race or religion, according to an Orange County Human Relations Commission report released Thursday.
The 2011 data showed 64 reported hate crimes in the county, up from 56 the previous year. African Americans were targeted in 19 of the incidents, according to the report, a high figure considering only 2% of the county's 3.2 million residents are black.
"I would hope there would be a day when you wouldn't see 64 documented hate crimes in our community, but I fear that they're happening much more frequently than we're aware of," says Rusty Kennedy, the commission's executive director,who has tracked the number for the county 21 years.
"It's more than assault - it's more than vandalism. It's about being safe and if kids aren't safe, they don't grow up healthy, they can't learn," he said.
Kennedy said he is alarmed by what appears to be increasing violence - and fear - within schools where students taunt classmates or where administrators prevent Gay Student Alliance groups from hosting meetings. Many such cases go unreported, officials say.
For LGBT youth, "schools in Orange County are very dangerous places for our kids," says Kevin O'Grady, who heads the Center Orange County, which provides services to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered population.
The most significant increase in hate crimes in 2011 targeted Jews - eight - up from three in 2010. Incidents occurred mostly in public places, followed by workplaces and residences.
"The data is very important. What's more important is that this community pauses, at least annually, to talk about these crimes," says David Maggard, Irvine's police chief and a commission member.
He urged people to come forward to share their stories because "if we can't identify who the victims are, we can't care for the victims.”
This story was reported by Times Staff Writer Anh Do.