Hate Crime at Swarthmore College?
Saturday night, two male college students behaving "affectionately" toward each other were allegedly roughed up by a group of five high-school age students.
H. Elizabeth Braun, dean of students, wrote a letter Tuesday to the college community saying both victims are OK after being treated for their injuries, both on campus and later at the hospital.But Swarthmore Police Chief Brian Craig was slightly dismissive of homophobia being the motive for the attack.
“I am writing both out of concern for the victims and campus safety and because I have been made aware of some additional facts and corrections since the initial (public safety) alert went out that I want to share with you,” she stated.
Braun indicated the Swarthmore student and his friend were on Mertz Field early Sunday when they were assaulted by a group of five males and one female. The initial alert indicated the attack happened when the college males were on Magill walk, near the train tracks, and were met by four males and one female.
“Our student has also shared that he and his friend were being affectionate with one another when they were approached by the high school-aged students. While it still isn’t clear what prompted the assault on our student and his friend, it does appear that homophobia could have been a factor in the attack,” Braun wrote. “I know that you share my distress and concern that any type of physical assault would take place on our campus, particularly one that may have been motivated by hate. I know that you will join me in condemning this act of violence on our campus and I appreciate that many of you have already expressed your concern to me.”
“The first I heard of that was this morning,” Craig told our Rose Quinn Tuesday night. Craig said separate reports were taken by campus security and police, shortly after the about 12:30 a.m. Sunday incident.
“There was no mention of homophobia,” Craig said, adding that such an attack “would be out of character for this community.”Ville rats? Is that how Swarthmore and Penn college students refer to local kids? As vermin? That's not very nice.
“What little I know about these type of incidents, if it centered about homophobia, there are usually comments made,” Craig said. “If any comments were made, it was not reported to us at that time.”
Craig said about 30 minutes prior to the attack, four males and a female were turned away from a fraternity. They were described as two white males, two Indian males and a female.
According to Craig, police suspected the Swarthmore College student and his friend, visiting from the University of Pennsylvania, probably angered a group of high school-aged youth who had asked them for booze.
“Were they ville rats?” Craig said one of the college males wanted to know, referring to youth who live in the town and do not belong on campus.
So far, the only slurs attributed in the incident came from one of these elite college students. Obviously, a more thorough investigation is necessary to get to the bottom of this.
Cue the Swarthmore Human Relations Commission. It's been idle since it's founding three years ago, mainly because Chief Craig is right, attacking gay people and other minorities is "out of character for this community."
Not being provided with booze on demand is hardly a justification for assault. But it could be that the sexual orientation of the victims was incidental and not the motive for the attack.
Swarthmore College officials, however, seem to be leaning the other way. Based on what, Ms. Braun doesn't quite make clear.
"Concerns" have been raised. An assault that "may have been motivated by hate" has occurred. "Homophobia could have been a factor..."
Or, you know, not.
We must find out.
UPDATE: I just left Swarthmore Police headquarters where I met with Chief Brian Craig. One thing that was a little unclear from the story was who said what to whom during the incident.
According to the police report prepared by Ptl Anthony Aloi:
... I spoke with both victims who advised me that they were walking through Mertz Field when they were approached by a croup of approx. 5-7 juveniles. The group asked the victims to get them liquore and the victims responded, "Aren't you guys ville rats." The group responded them them, "No." The victims then said what are you high-schoolers thne after this comment the group, which is believed to have consisted of 5-6 males and 1 femal, began to beat on the 2 victims, knocking them to the ground where they were repeatedly kicked..."Chief Craig called the attack no "joke."
"We're seriously concerned about this assault, no matter who it is...," he said.
He said they had information that a group fitting this discription had been turned away from a frat party.
"I'm very encouraged that somebody in the fraternity was responsible enough to question someobdy who should have been there."
He said that his department has what he considers to be a very good working relationship with the college and its campus safety team and that they meet monthly to deal with any concerns either of them have.
As for the possibility that this was a "hate crime," he said, "We're not at the point to say that." He said that Ptl. Aloi will re-interview the victims to see if they have any more information to suggest an anti-gay motive here.
As he said before typically attackers say things, shout slurs, etc, during an assault that provide evidence they are being motiviated by such animus. But right after the attack, the victims claimed no such slurs. The only slurs made that night, according to the police report, were directed at the gang of kids by the victims, prior to the attack.
"These guys were hurt and it shouldn't happen to anybody," said Craig. "If we get information that this is a hate crime it will be classified as a hate crime."
But so far, such evidence is severely lacking.
I am waiting to hear back from Swarthmore College officials about what information they have that leads them to believe otherwise.
UPDATE: Phone interview is set with Swarthmore's Liz Braun for 12:30 p.m.
UPDATE III: Come to think of it this isn't a matter for the Swarthmore Human Relations Commission. Their mission is to investigate civil matters of discrimination in housing, the work place, or places of public accommodation. Not actual crimes. What happened here was a crime, there are no two ways about that. The question is was it a "hate crime," as is being suggested by the college. We'll see.
UPDATE IV: Just got off the phone with Swarthmore Dean of Students Liz Braun. She's been very busy with press requests and was a little late calling me at the assigned time.
First, she wanted it made clear that the most important thing was that "regardless of what motivated this attack we don't tolerate any violence of this sort on our campus. When something like this does happen the college going to take this very seriously."
I asked her what new information the victims had provided that led her and them to believe that this crime may have been motivated by hatred toward gays.
"The student victim reported to me that when he and his friend were approached they were being affectionate with one another."
I asked her the how that affection was being exhibited. At first she said she the two students "didn't go into specifics."
When I pressed her, she did say, "I definitely know they were holding hands."
She reiterated "regardless of what motivated this..." this sort of violence is not be tolerated on our campus.
But the only reason we were talking about this was because she, the Dean of Students in a letter to the whole campus community, suggested it was motivated by homophobia.
"I felt that it could have been a factor," she said. And in the interests of getting as much information out to the students as possible, she said, that's what she put in her mass email.
She did not include in the email the the student victims had admittedly referred to gang of kids who stopped to ask if they could get them any booze, "Ville Rats."
"Do you have any problem with that being said?" I asked.
"I wasn't present," she replied.
"Do you consider 'Ville Rat' to be an insult?"
She wouldn't say.
"Any type of incivility is not OK. Physically violence in not OK."
As for Ville Rat?
"I am not going to claim to know how people view that term," she told me. "It's not for me to say."
And then she repeated that all the factors that "were in play" are being investigated. She said incidents like this are "rare" and that there have been no other incidents reported of alleged gay-bashing by local teenagers on campus or in town.
Braun said the victims' failure to report to police that they were gay and holding hands at the time they were approached by the gang, might be attributed to "shock."
"They came through a very difficult and traumatizing experience. It's not unusual in the first few hours of shock not to include every detail (of what happened.)"
This sounds perfectly plausible to me. But who knows if any of their assailants even saw this hand-holding.
It seems to me that being called an insulting name would be stronger motive for violence than seeing two young men holding hands, especially in Swarthmore. Neither, obviously, justifies such a cowardly attack.