Hate crimes prompt strong response from students

by Jasmynne Sloan

Graffiti isn’t pretty, but recent vandalism at Simpson proves it can be downright ugly sometimes.

On Saturday, March 4, sophomore Emili Johnson found out firsthand how ugly graffiti can be when the door to her room in Buxton Hall and the wall beside it were vandalized.

She described the graffiti in general as “derogatory things geared toward myself, my roommate and my suitemate,” but said the message on her door was particularly offensive.

On Johnson’s door was the phrase “I hate niggers.” Although someone had tried to smear the last word, it was still legible.

The graffiti went beyond that, though. On Sunday, March 5, Indianola Police Officer Chris Marsh met with Director of Security Chris Frerichs about the vandalism. According to the police report Marsh filed that day, at least one hallway was also vandalized.

“I met with Frerichs, who stated that sometime since the beginning of the basketball tournament last week, someone had used a dry-erase marker to write ‘I hate niggers’ and ‘fuck niggers’ on a wall at Buxton Hall,” Marsh said in his report.

In addition, junior Brooke Dey found more graffiti at the east end of Buxton’s second floor which said “I hate niggers” again, as well as “I ‘heart’ pussy.”

Frerichs was unable to comment on the situation because it’s still under investigation.

Community reaction

Roxann Ryan, assistant professor of criminal justice, has trained various groups on hate-crime issues. She said since the graffiti in Buxton was a hate-motivated event, it requires a specific type of reaction from the campus community.

“Hate-motivated incidents and threats of physical harm do happen, I think, all too often,” Ryan said. “The most effective response is to discuss it. By doing that, we can provide support to the victims while emphasizing that hate is not tolerated.”

The college has responded to the graffiti in several ways. At the regularly-scheduled meeting on Tuesday, March 7, faculty members were asked to talk about the vandalism in their classes.

Johnson said she’s glad people are talking about the derogatory comments in an academic setting.

“It’s unfortunate that this had to happen, and it’s unfortunate that it had to happen to me,” Johnson said. “But it has created a unique opportunity to discuss racism. It’s important that people talk about this and that they talk about how wrong it is.”

Walter Lain, assistant dean for multicultural and international affairs, e-mailed the college’s minority students soon after he learned about the graffiti. Then on Wednesday, March 8, Jim Thorius, vice president and dean for student development, e-mailed the entire campus in response to the vandalism.

Thorius didn’t offer any specifics in his e-mail, but he deemed the graffiti “racist, sexist and intimidating” and the “antithesis of who we are as a college and a community.”

Also on Wednesday, the Social Sciences Department held a candlelight vigil outside Smith Chapel in response to the graffiti. At least 70 students, faculty and staff members attended and signed a “statement of commitment to tolerance” as both a personal and public way of rejecting prejudice.

Among others to speak at the vigil, President John Byrd commented on his own reaction to the graffiti.

“I was out of town this weekend, but was saddened and disappointed to hear of the incident,” Byrd said. “However, this is not a defining moment for Simpson. How we respond to this will define how we see prejudice as a community.”

Junior Nina Ward agreed that the college’s response, especially the turnout at the vigil, was important.

“I’m glad we all made the decision to be here tonight and I’m glad we have the opportunity to gather together and show our support,” Ward said. “To be honest, I didn’t know what the turnout would be, so thank you for being here and for putting your foot down.”

Search for a culprit

While many on campus are promoting tolerance in response to the graffiti, at least one office is working on finding out who did it. The Indianola Police Department report said Frerichs and Simpson Security are investigating the vandalism and will report any new information to the IPD.

According to Dey, it’s going to be hard to find out who vandalized Buxton, perhaps even impossible.

“Honestly, I don’t know if there’s any way to figure it out,” Dey said. “There were a lot of people in and out of the building because of the basketball game, and the doors at Buxton are generally propped open. I know security tries to close them, but students open them again anyway, especially on the weekends.”

Lain said the school needs to focus on responding to the graffiti, not finding and punishing the person or people who did it.

“I don’t have a strong sense that we need to go out and find out who did this, although we are working to find out who’s responsible,” Lain said. “More importantly, we’re working to create an atmosphere at Simpson where a person would be extremely uncomfortable doing anything like this again.”

Ryan said the damage has already been done, so one of the only benefits to catching the perpetrator would be to make the victims feel better.

“It doesn’t make a difference whether you find the person or not,” Ryan said. “In hate-motivated incidents, the impact on the targets is the same. When a person knows they’re being singled out for some immutable characteristic like their race or gender, it increases their vulnerability and it increases the vulnerability of others with similar characteristics – they become potential victims as well.”

However, some people would still like to know who wrote the graffiti. No one in the college’s administration could offer any suspects because they’re still investigating.

Meanwhile, Johnson isn’t going to let an unknown vandal keep her from attending Simpson.

“People ask me if I’m going to stay here, and I wonder why I wouldn’t,” Johnson said. “This is not going to run me out of town. I’m not going to walk around in fear and I’m not going to worry that someone is going to jump me because of the color of my skin. You don’t worry about that, so I’m not going to either.”

Implications of hate

According to Iowa’s Uniform Crime Report, Warren County isn’t a common place for hate crimes to occur. IPD reported just one hate-motivated incident from 2000-2004.

Simpson keeps separate statistics for on-campus crimes, and the school lists no hate crimes from 2001-2004. No statistics were available from 2005 yet.

Even though they’re rare, Ryan said even one incident like the vandalism in Buxton can have long-reaching impact.

“It’s not uncommon for hate crimes to be repeated,” she said. “Once one person does it, others start to think it’s OK. The best way to deal with it, the best way to nip it in the bud, is to send a message as a community that we don’t accept hate and we value tolerance.”

While Simpson is clearly trying to prevent any more hate-motivated crime, Lain said it would be impossible to make any promises.

“We’d like to be able to guarantee that events like this won’t happen ever again,” Lain said. “But there’s no guarantee. We can only work to discourage them.”

Ryan said in many cases a young perpetrator, such as a college student, is unaware of the impact his or her actions will have.

“There may be a lack of education, a lack of understanding, a lack of experience – all kinds of excuses could be made, especially in the case of a young perpetrator,” Ryan said. “Very often a young perpetrator will apologize and admit he or she didn’t realize how serious the action was.”

She added that even though no one was physically harmed as a result of the recent vandalism, it still needs to be taken seriously because of the effect it has had and will continue to have on the community as a whole.

“Regardless of whether people are physically injured or not, these events still have an impact,” Ryan said. “People don’t understand that their words can do just as much damage as their fists. The same sense of unease is created, and it’s not just the victims who feel it. Their friends feel it, their families feel it, even their professors feel it.”

Johnson said her initial reaction wasn’t fear, but anger, and now she intends to focus on her classes.

“I guess to the people who did this, I just want to say that I’m staying,” Johnson said. “I’m just trying to go to school like everyone else. I’m getting my degree, and unless Simpson is going to hand it to me tomorrow, I’m not going anywhere. You can do whatever you want and I’ll still be here.”