Hate Crime Hoaxes Present Burdens, Lessons for College Campuses

Allie Grasgreen, Inside Higher Ed, July 31, 2012

When threatening notes that targeted minority students started showing up around the Trinity International University campus in 2005, administrators spoke to the campus and conferred with police before ultimately evacuating all students of color from their residence halls. The Federal Bureau of Investigation came in to look into the apparent hate crime, and arrested a suspect in less than a week.

The whole thing was fake.

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Rarely are apparent hate crimes uncovered as hoaxes, but those sorts of incidents have been popping up on campuses for years and are still a difficult phenomenon to address.

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Several institutions that bore witness to hoaxes declined to comment on their response or how the incident affected their campus. But given that standard procedure is to fully investigate any seemingly legitimate allegation of harassment, hoaxes can cause significant drain on money and person power. And there are oft-floated fears that hoaxes negatively affect campus climate and the way people respond (or don’t) to complaints thereafter.

Students who go through with hoaxes tend to do so to meet some personal ends – to get out of school, say, as was the case at Trinity International, or to get some attention from friends or roommates, which motivated the Central Connecticut State student. But many aim to bring social issues to light. That was the case last year at the University of Virginia, when a student falsely claimed campus police harassed him because he was black. After he was discovered, the student said he wanted to draw attention to “the topic of police misconduct.”

But one should not discount these incidents, even if they are set up, some officials say. Regardless of whether a hate crime actually occurred, the fact that a student would feel compelled to fake one points to a whole other set of problems beyond just crisis response.

“As an administrator, those are the kinds of things I’m really sensitive to – what are the students saying – because even if it’s not true, the perception is their reality,” said William L. Howard, assistant vice president of academic services at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. In other words, while a student’s method of calling attention to perceived prejudice may be flawed, that perception of prejudice still exists. “If you say, ‘This is not an issue on my campus,’ and a student has an experience that is counter to that, you have to listen to them.”

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At Williams College, however, an unsolved hate crime that occurred last year is still thought by some to have been a hoax perpetrated by a minority student. There, someone wrote “All Niggers Must Die” across a wall inside a campus building, prompting the college to cancel all classes and athletic practices for a day, and students to march in solidarity to attend a speech by the college president, and participate in an open mic session on campus racism and discrimination.

However, Williams investigated every possible lead and piece of information and has “no reason to believe it was a hoax,” spokeswoman Angela P. Schaeffer said. She said the investigation is “still open but not active.”

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At Trinity International, there was the obvious hassle of getting all students of color to one “undisclosed location,” said Gary Cantwell, former vice president of communications and marketing at the university. (Cantwell no longer works at Trinity International.) Several of those students missed classes as a result. The whole thing required “massive” amounts of manpower for a couple of weeks.

But it also caused a less tangible problem: an unease among the black students who felt betrayed by the actions of the culprit, who was black and who devised the plan as a way to convince her parents to take her out of school. The students worried that because of what happened, real hate crimes wouldn’t be taken seriously – “the ‘cry wolf’ problem,” as Cantwell put it.

From the students’ perspective, “It seemed to weaken the case for them to say there are still examples of racism that happens in our society,” Cantwell said.

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