The bigotry spotlight has shone brightly on Jena, Louisiana, after an incident where three white teens hung nooses from a tree near the local high school in response to a group of black teens asking to sit beneath it. But this isn't the only campus noose hanging episode being examined on the news or in the courts — the University of Maryland and a North Carolina high school have also fallen victim to this outward demonstration of hate. These events, while not isolated examples of prejudice on school grounds, paint an accurate picture of the intolerance that exists.
In "Hate Crimes on Campus: The problem and Efforts to Confront It," the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) finds that while no school is immune to problems concerning hate, college campuses are particularly vulnerable. In fact, the report states the DOJ has brought criminal civil rights actions against students attending institutions ranging from small liberal arts colleges to large state universities. And the FBI reports in its most recent hate crimes statistics, collected for 2006, that of the 7,722 hate crime incidents reported that year, 12.2 percent occurred on campus.
As purveyors of justice, law enforcers, particularly university police, carry heightened responsibility to act as campus watchdogs, zealously monitoring the campus community for signs of bias, says Reggie Shuford, senior staff attorney in the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) Racial Justice Program.
The blue line obviously steps in to investigate these crimes after they occur, but Shuford reminds that authorities are also a factor in promoting tolerance and preventing bias crimes. "Police departments have the legal authority to play a significant role in preventing hate crimes and other acts of hostility," he states.Proactive policing
"When you see a need for something, you can't ignore it," says Assistant Chief Dale Burke for the University of Wisconsin — Madison Police Department. "We don't ever want to be caught in the reactive phase."
In 2003, the UW-Madison PD, under the helm of Police Chief Susan Riseling, received an Education/Prevention Award from the Civil Rights Division of the International Association of Chiefs of Police for measures enacted to maintain the safety of Muslim students after 9/11. The agency's strategies included reaching out to this segment of the campus population to demonstrate that its officers understood and appreciated their fearfulness for retaliation, threats or harassment and wanted to help. The department also hired an individual who'd served in the Peace Corps in a predominantly Muslim community and tapped into his knowledge about Islamic customs.
Endeavors such as these are ongoing at this university of 42,000+ students, from 134 countries. It has to be — more than 1/4 of the student body belongs to one minority group or another. "We try to stay ahead of the game and recognize the things that might arise in order to prepare our staff as much as possible," Burke says. "We want to treat all students with dignity. We want them to feel comfortable with us."
The undertakings of this doctoral university should be adopted into the pages of every college police department's handbook, says Shuford, who explains that the prejudices of greater society — often triggered from a variety of social ills — manifest themselves on the college campus. A sluggish or depressed economy, a political administration hostile to certain human and civil rights, high profile bias crimes or events the magnitude of 9/11 can empower regular citizens to indulge crimes of intolerance.
"College campuses are a microcosm of what is playing out in society at large," he says. "Departments must see what is 'really' happening and why it's happening, and be sincerely committed to addressing these issues."Mirror the community