Teaching moments: What students can learn from hate incidents at schools

By Elia Powers and Ellen Futterman

Earlier this year at the University of Missouri-Columbia, two Mizzou students allegedly threw cotton balls across the lawn of a black culture center. The students, who were male and white, were arrested on suspicion of tampering in the second degree, a felony that’s enhanced because of the classification as a hate crime. But the charges were later downgraded to littering misdemeanors, though both students were suspended.

Still, Nathan Stephens, director of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center, said there’s no doubt about their intentions.

“It was an act that was deliberately done on the basis of race,” Stephens said. “If that qualifies for a hate crime, so be it. I will not allow anyone to say this wasn’t done on the basis of race due to the fact that the Gaines Culture Center was the only place that received the cotton.”

The cotton-ball incident is an almost archetypical: It uses highly charged imagery; it’s linked to racial stereotype (the majority of hate incidents and hate crimes are motivated by racial bias); and it targets an institution but in a way that makes individual students feel like the target. Other recent incidents on college campuses that seem to target a minority or minorities include:

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• A white fraternity’s “ghetto-themed” Compton cookout during Black History Month at the University of California-San Diego

• A swastika carved on a wall near a Jewish studies center at the University of Miami and several swastikas found on the walls of a student housing building at University of California-Berkeley

• An alleged attack on a transgender student in a campus restroom at California State University at Long Beach

“At least anecdotally, it seems as if we are seeing an increase of hate-motivated violence on college campuses across the country. Students don’t always see one another as allies,” said Jack Levin, a professor of sociology and criminology at Northeastern University who has studied hate crimes for more than three decades. “Students may view their classmates as opponents vying for scarce resources such as popularity, financial aid and jobs when they graduate. This kind of fierce competition has grown at the same time as diversity on campus has grown, with virtually every minority group having its own campus organization. Diversity and competition are a dangerous mix.”

Brian Levin (no relation), who runs the Center for Hate Violence in California, says hate crimes on campus tend to be cyclical. An uncertain economy, varying opinions over issues such as immigration and health care reform and political squabbling certainly can contribute to an uptick, he said. Still, if the numbers are up, it should come as no great surprise. “Young men 22 and under are the biggest group of hate crime perpetrators. So it’s not unexpected that we would see a larger number of these crimes on campuses,” he said.

He notes that certain controversial speakers on campuses may also exploit issues in public debate purposely to rile students. “Whether it’s the situation in the Middle East situation or immigration or affirmative action, these issues get exploited for bigoted purposes and that can incite some students into acting out,” he said.

According to the most recent FBI statistics, 12 percent of hate crimes occur on college or school campuses, though experts say many more go unreported because they are sometimes viewed as pranks, even by the victims they are targeting. More than half of the hate crimes or incidents on campus are motivated by racial bias, according to the FBI.

The Clery Act, established in 1990, requires all colleges and universities that participate in federal financial aid programs report information about crime on campus, including hate crimes. Melissa Lucchesi, outreach education coordinator of Security on Campus Inc., the non-profit that championed passage of the Clery Act, said that while hate violence on campus seems to have increased in the last year, definitive numbers won’t be available until October.

“Even if the number is higher that isn’t necessarily a terrible thing,” she said. “It may mean students are recognizing (hate violence) is a problem and reporting it more so that something can be done.”

Stephens said he knows several Mizzou students who have previously been targets of hate-fueled attacks, and he said it’s likely that many incidents have gone unreported. Even though the most recent incident involves students who targeted an institution rather than a person, plenty of people feel like victims.

“The entire campus was a victim of this incident,” he said. “It may have impacted us more significantly than other subgroup, but it impacted the entire campus. Students feel hurt and betrayed. Now many of them are frustrated and tired of talking about it and want to move past it.”

But that won’t be easy. As Stephens explains, the repercussions of incidents like this are often far ranging. “I’ve had one student say that he’s often promoted the university to students in his home town, but that now he’s having a hard time selling minority students on the institution.”

In the wake of some incidents at St. Louis University, including racial slurs on walls and a photo of student government officials posing with a noose, a group called SLU Students for Social Justice has organized to combat hate on campus. Several hundred people attended an anti-hate vigil earlier this year, and a large group gathered in mid-April at the clock tower at the center of campus as a show of solidarity for the victims of hate-related incidents.

Sarah Holland, a SLU graduate student and lead organizer for Students for Social Justice, said the student victims tell her that they no longer feel safe on campus.

“I hear that over and over again, that there’s a sense of trauma among students who have been attacked and students who are a part of these groups that have been targeted,” Holland said. “For us students who haven’t been directly attacked, we share a sense that what’s been happening on campus is not OK, and we’re trying to raise awareness that there’s a problem.”

Added Omari Holt, a SLU undergraduate who is treasurer of the Black Student Alliance: “Since all these things have been coming out and students like me have spoken out, you can see a different atmosphere on campus,” he said. “You catch glances coming at you. I’m not going to say I’m afraid of getting attacked, but I don’t feel as safe in general as I had before.”

Still, Holland acknowledges that student response to these incidents have varied widely. In the case of the noose picture, for instance, “some people were outraged, others thought it was no big deal and still others didn’t understand why the images were upsetting,” she said.

Educating students about these kinds of incidents is exactly what Stop the Hate, a national program begun in 2001, does. The organization, whose purpose is to help counter bias-motivated violence on college campuses, has geared up its three-day training, now offering up to six sessions a year for students, faculty and administrators. Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, which runs Stop the Hate, says even if much of what is happening on campus is name-calling protected by free speech, “that doesn’t mean the victim couldn’t still report it.”

“We’ve been training teams at campuses to deal with these incidents so that victims have a place to go for encouragement and support and to know that bias-motivated acts are not OK,” he said.