Aaron Miller was surprised and saddened by reports that a black freshman had faced weeks of racial harassment by some of his white roommates in a San Jose State University dorm.
The alleged abuse was poles apart from Miller’s own experience as a black student on the diverse campus.
“It was awful to believe that something like that could happen on a campus where I had felt so welcome, loved and supported,” said Miller, 20, a junior majoring in political science.
But with three white students charged with hate crimes and a fourth suspended from school, the San Jose State campus has been forced to confront the possibility that racial and ethnic relations may not be as smooth as once thought.
Some black students wonder whether it’s safe to stay in dorms.
They and others in the campus community are dumbfounded that the situation apparently went unchecked for weeks. The alleged abuse included blockading the unnamed then-17-year-old in his room, forcing a U-shaped bike lock around his neck, nicknaming him “three-fifths,” a reference to a slavery-era constitutional provision that counted blacks as three-fifths of a person, and parading a Confederate flag.
All of this has occurred on a campus that venerates the 1960s civil rights struggles with an imposing statue of black sprinters and alumni Tommie Smith and John Carlos, depicted at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics with their black-gloved fists raised in protest during the playing of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”
The hate crime case joins a list of controversies plaguing the campus recently, including protests over last-minute program cuts (subsequently canceled), plans to reduce the size of the African American studies department, problems with a highly touted online experiment and a call by the campus Academic Senate for an outside review of campus leadership.
The students charged with misdemeanor hate crimes and battery are Logan Beaschler, 18, of Bakersfield, Joseph Bomgardner, 19, of Clovis, and Colin Warren, 18, of Woodacre. All have been suspended. An unidentified minor was also suspended. The three older students surrendered and were released on $15,000 bail. An arraignment was scheduled for Jan. 6, when they are scheduled to enter pleas.
The students, who also placed Nazi symbols and pictures of Adolf Hitler in the apartment, told campus police that the incidents were pranks and practical jokes. Attorneys for the students did not return calls seeking comment.
The president of the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP, the Rev. Jethroe Moore II, called their actions “racially based terrorism” and urged that felony charges be filed.
Prosecutors said that the charges reflect the level of conduct and that, after a meeting explaining the decision, the victim’s family is satisfied.
“We believe if we over-charge this case, we may not be able to get justice for the victim, ” Deputy Dist. Atty. Erin West said. “We charged the most we thought we could prove. The investigation is ongoing, and should we be presented with additional evidence the charges could change.”
A coalition of students has proposed remedies that include setting up voluntary floors for black students in dorms.
An African American Student Success Task Force of faculty and staff established by the provost over the summer to address retention and graduation is also likely to look at factors surrounding the incident.
Many students and faculty said that they had not experienced a culture or climate of racial intolerance on the 30,000-student campus but that isolated incidents of racial stereotyping of all ethnic groups had occurred for years. In the fall of 2012, African Americans made up 3% of the student population, Latinos 21%, whites 26% and Asians 33%.