Timing of U. of Iowa’s Alert to Students of a Possible Hate Crime Fuels Racial Tensions

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz, Chronicle of Higher Education, May 5, 2016

The Iowa City Police Department received a report on Monday night from a black University of Iowa student who said he had been attacked in a potential hate crime outside an off-campus bar. Three days later the university sent students a campus-crime alert by email and text.

That response followed standard crime-alert protocol, but it incited fierce criticism from students who viewed the response as unacceptably delayed. Those students say the slow-arriving alert highlighted greater problems of race relations and inclusion on a campus where some African-American students have already said they feel misunderstood.

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On Monday, Marcus Owens, a 19-year-old freshman, told the Iowa City Police Department he had been beaten by three white men on Saturday night. When a Chicago-area news station reported about the student, who is from a Chicago suburb, on Tuesday night, Iowa students took to Twitter, using the hashtag #ExplainIowa to express their discontent with the university for not notifying them sooner.

The university first acknowledged the incident on Tuesday around midnight.

“UI officials first learned of the incident when called by a Chicago television station and are working to learn more,” the university tweeted.

The student first tried to report the incident to the University of Iowa police on Monday night, but he was redirected to the Iowa City police because the assault had happened off-campus. For that reason, university administrators were unaware of Saturday night’s events until later, said Jeneane Beck, assistant vice president for external relations.

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On Wednesday morning Iowa sent out a crime alert about the incident. David A. Visin, the university’s associate police director, said in an email that the university did not have enough information about the incident to issue an alert before then.

As concerns over racial-climate issues roil campuses nationwide, other institutions have come under fire for issuing campus alerts with insufficient information. At Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, for example, a campus-crime alert describing a potential suspect as a “black male wearing a dark hoodie” sparked student protests for its vague and potentially polarizing language.

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