St. Cloud State struggles to combat race hate crimes

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Students, faculty, administrators unite to ‘speak with a common voice’

Last week, St. Cloud, Minnesota, was named the 19th most secure place to live among U.S. midsized cities in a national insurance company’s annual study. However, also last week, a swastika drawing was found in a dormitory bathroom on the St. Cloud State University (SCSU) campus, only the latest in a series of hate-motivated incidents plaguing the area.

Discovered on the same day last week were an index card with a Ku Klux Klan hood drawing and burning cross symbol and the swastika found on a men’s dormitory restroom door. Other incidents include swastikas carved into a wall inside the school’s Atwood Memorial Center, on walls in a computer lab, in two other bathrooms, and on an elevator ceiling.

Additionally, a Black teenager was assaulted earlier last month by a group of White males wearing swastikas.

Almost a dozen hate-related incidents have been reported in the last couple of months, creating a climate of fear among the school’s students of color on campus. SCSU Security Coordinator Jennifer Furan said that all incidents are still under investigation.

“We are seeking the help of the public on what they know or have seen,” Furan said, adding that a male recently was questioned about one incident, but no arrests or charges have been made.

Hedy Tripp of CreateCommUNITY said that her organization is in the process of offering a $1,000 reward to anyone with information that will lead to the arrest and conviction of the person or persons responsible for the hate crimes.

“[It] is very unsettling and frightening, especially for students [of color] who are living on campus or hanging out on campus,” said Professor Semya Hakim, who 10 years ago had a swastika etched on her car door and another one drawn and slipped under her office door. She reported the incidents to school officials at the time, but nothing was done about it, she recalled.

Such incidents create a feeling “of the unknown,” noted Hakim. “On the one hand, you hope it is not somebody who has violent intentions, but on the other hand, images of swastikas or images of the KKK have very serious, significant, physically violent meanings behind them.”

On the cloud of fear currently hovering over campus, Hakim said, “We don’t know if it’s a student who is doing it, but it’s likely. Students [of color who] are being targeted [by these incidents] are understandably afraid, but at the same time, I think they are supporting one another. They are doing what is necessary to protect [themselves], to make sure that they are not in danger.”

“Right now, there are students on campus who are scared [because] these things are continuing to happen,” said SCSU’s vice-president of student life and development, Wanda Overland, whose office is located in Atwood Center. The incidents have made her “fearful and anxious,” she admitted. “I find it just appalling and unacceptable.”

SCSU sophomore D’Angelo Svenkeson, a St. Paul Central graduate, said that he is not overly concerned about his own safety. “I might be [more] worried for other students [of color] because of covert racism,” he said, adding that such hate-related incidents are a reflection of the person or persons responsible “and their ignorant ways.”

Since taking over last spring, SCSU President Earl Potter has said he is committed to improving racial relations on campus. Hate crimes on campus will not be tolerated, he said.

“Even though this is targeted against some folk and not others, this is truly an assault against our entire community,” Potter noted. “I know some of our students feel threatened. They have been hurt by these acts, and we are outraged. The person or persons who are doing these things are hurting us at the core of the purpose of our institution, and we won’t stand for this.”

Several student-based groups, along with faculty and staff members, met twice in November. “We brainstormed and discussed some short-term and long-term strategies,” Overland reported.

A university-wide Speak Out against hate crimes held December 6 at the Atwood Center’s first-floor open lounge area was packed wall-to-wall with students, faculty and staff, according to Overland. Originally planned for an hour during lunchtime, the event continued over two hours. “Our goal was for students to have the opportunity to talk about the impact [of the hate crimes] on campus,” said Overland.

Potter also spoke to the gathering, assuring them that he and others are committed to ensure that the SCSU campus is safe for all. “I believe that we have the strength in this community to deal with these kinds of incidents,” he added. “The community spoke with a single voice, very loudly and clearly. That is what is most important at times like this.”

“Part of the reason that we had the Speak Out is to send a message that we [students and faculty of color] won’t be silent about racism,” Hakim pointed out. “Hopefully, we will be vigilant in finding out who is doing these things, but we have to be equally vigilant in speaking out against these incidents.

“I think that now there have been a lot of students and faculty and administrators who have really worked together to address the problem,” Hakim continued. “I don’t think they particularly know what to do, but they are now taking it seriously. We are trying to encourage more faculty members to talk about [hate crimes] in the classroom and reach more students.”

Rather than students leading the fight, SCSU faculty and administrators should be out front more, speaking against hate crimes, the professor said. “I worry that all this is taking away from [students’] primary goal, which is getting an education,” Hakim surmised.

Unlike similar incidents in the past, school officials have been proactive, and security and monitoring of campus buildings and residence halls have increased, Hakim noted. In the past, such requests from students of color were virtually ignored.

Discussions are now underway with St. Cloud City officials on how to address hate crimes on and off campus, said Potter. “We are talking with the City and the mayor,” he said, adding that new hate-crime reporting procedures will be instituted. “After the first of the year, we will take a closer look at all kinds of anti-racist education efforts and look at the effectiveness of those efforts.”

Regular safety email alerts are now being sent to students from the school’s provost office, said Overland — the most recent was issued last Friday during fall finals week. Anti-bias programming also is being planned for students when they return to campus after the holidays, she added.

Education and continuing dialogue also will help combat hate crime behavior, Professor Hakim believes. “It will create a culture where everybody understands that this is not acceptable behavior.”

Information from the St. Cloud Times, the Associated Press and the SCSU campus newspaper University Chronicle was used in this report.

Charles Hallman welcomes reader responses to challman@spokesman-recorder.com, or read his blog at www.challman.blogspot.com.

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