Living on campus in her first year of college has not been a good experience for Bea Botelho, a 17-year-old transgender student from Massachusetts.
A psychology major with a minor in women and gender studies at Curry College in Milton, Massachusetts, Botelho told Rewire that she has witnessed “anti-Semitic slurs, swastikas, as well as threats and slurs targeted towards students of color and LGBTQIA students” on campus.
In an email, Botelho said that during the 2016 election someone wrote, “When Trump wins, I will kill all of you T****ys” on her dorm building board; the private bathroom she was offered had “tranny bathroom” scribbled on the wall; and a table in her building was confiscated after it was found vandalized with, “We hate gays, sign if you agree,” allegedly signed by several student athletes and a member of the student government.
Responding to a rash of hate-based incidents in December, a Curry College spokesperson said ten incidents of “bias-related graffiti” targeting groups based on race, religion, gender identity, and sexual orientation were reported since September, The Patriot Ledger reported at that time. This is not typical for the Massachusetts college, the Ledger noted, as it saw just three hate crimes on campus for the 2014 school year and two for the previous school year.
After each incident at Curry, the college reportedly contacted police, documented and removed the graffiti, and noted at the site of each incident “the school’s intolerance for hate speech and symbols.”
The spokesperson said in a statement, “Curry has both clear policies against hostile or hateful speech and a full commitment to creating a safe, welcoming and diverse campus; these acts are contrary to all that Curry, its students, faculty, and staff stand for,” the Ledger reported.
Similar local news reports suggest racial incidents have spiked across the board at college and university campuses, private or public, from white nationalist posters at the University of Maryland and anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim posters at the University of Texas at Austin to social media posts of a student in Blackface with captions about cotton picking at Spring Arbor University in Michigan and reports of racism and transphobia at Salem College in North Carolina.
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“These are situations that put fear, not just into the individual who is targeted, but the entire community,” said Heidi Beirich, director of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s (SPLC) Intelligence Project, which tracks hate groups, in a Boston Globe article about bias incidents spiking at Massachusetts campuses.
In the first month after the election, the SPLC counted 1,094 bias incidents nationwide. Between November 9 and March 31, the SPLC counted 1,863 bias incidents, of which 330 occurred on college campuses and 284 in K-12 schools. Many more bias incidents go unreported as well.
The Office for Civil Rights of the U.S. Department of Education’s 2016 annual report indicates that a record 16,720 complaints were filed last year, a 61 percent increase from 2015. More than 2,400—15 percent—of the complaints filed dealt with issues of race, 542 cases involving allegations of racial harassment. Of these, 198 were complaints related to racial harassment at colleges and universities.
Responding to the hate-based incidents, several colleges have launched cultural diversity programs, staff sensitivity training, safe spaces for students, and cell phone apps that help connect students with a buddy to walk with at night.
North Carolina State University, for instance, has established a Bias Incident Response Team to encourage members of the community to report incidents and offer support to victims, according to a report in the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education.
Organizations like Campus Pride, a North Carolina nonprofit that develops programs to help LGBTQ college students, has since 2000 trained college leaders to deal with hateful incidents. It has seen a rise in calls for assistance since the election, officials told the Globe.
Campuses from Napa Valley College in California to Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania have hosted its “Stop the Hate” program, which trains campuses to foster community and prevent or combat hate.
Hollaback!, a New York-based anti-harassment nonprofit, has focused on hosting bystander intervention training discussing harassment in public spaces. Deputy Director Debjani Roy told Rewire that a lot of the work Hollaback! does involves people of different backgrounds, including LGBTQ people and people of color.
“We have been focusing on this program after the election due to the spike in hate crime and violence across the board,” Roy said. “We really need to be more aware of our identities and be more observant of people around us and what they are going through.”
It called on college administrators to “take swift and firm action, consistent with due process rights, against those who have perpetrated violence and those whose menacing behavior threatens both the safety of members of our community and their sense of inclusion. We urge administrators to make clear to all on the campus that such assaults will not be tolerated and to encourage frank and respectful discussion instead.”
While the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) encourages such steps, it also warns against the implementation of speech codes that might interfere with students’ First Amendment rights. “Where racist, sexist, and homophobic speech is concerned, the ACLU believes that more speech—not less—is the best revenge. This is particularly true at universities, whose mission is to facilitate learning through open debate and study, and to enlighten. Speech codes are not the way to go on campuses, where all views are entitled to be heard, explored, supported, or refuted. Besides, when hate is out in the open, people can see the problem. Then they can organize effectively to counter bad attitudes, possibly change them, and forge solidarity against the forces of intolerance,” said an ACLU statement online.
Fires and fights have broken out at the University of California, Berkeley, as it currently grapples with issues of free speech and the safety of controversial speakers, according to the New York Times. Known to be one of the most liberal colleges in the country, the school last week canceled a scheduled speech by conservative author Ann Coulter because of security concerns, and in February canceled right-wing writer Milo Yiannopoulos‘ speech for similar reasons.
Another example of hate out in the open: recruitment materials from white supremacist groups on campuses. The Anti-Defamation League in March identified 107 incidents of white supremacist flyers posted on college campuses since the school year began in September, with a surge of activity since January.
“Until recently, on-the-ground white supremacist actions have been relatively infrequent on college campuses,” the ADL noted. “While the vast majority of white supremacist campus actions involve hateful fliers (‘Imagine a Muslim-Free America’) and stickers (‘Make America White Again’), white supremacists have also sent anti-Semitic faxes and, in the case of white nationalist Richard Spencer, delivered speeches on campus.”
The SPLC has documented “an explosive rise” in hate groups since the turn of the century, with 917 groups currently operating in America.
NPR recently interviewed Lee Pelton, president of Emerson College in Boston, about incidents of postering and emails sent by American Vanguard, an anti-Semitic organization that seeks “to assert the intellectual superiority” of the so-called white race.
“My view is that it was not a recruitment effort for the targeted Emerson students and faculty, but rather it was sent to intimidate our community and also to get us to respond in a way that would allow it to recruit members from around the country,” Pelton said.
Pelton, the college’s first Black president, said he thinks this is all a part of groups trying to incite “white consciousness in this country of ours and what others have called the racialization of white people.”
Some students who have experienced racism or discrimination have called for more discussion, support, and education around hate-based incidents on campuses.
Ja’Loni Owens, an 18-year-old Black student enrolled at Hofstra University in New York, which hosted the first presidential debate last year between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, told Rewire that hate-based incidents are still an issue, even on progressive campuses.
She said she participated in several protests on campus fighting for issues ranging from women’s rights to Black Lives Matter and LGBTQ rights, where demonstrators faced backlash from other students.
“It never got violent or anything but we were on the receiving end of a lot of hostility. Black students and other students of color overall, were subjected to a lot of hostility,” she said. “No one intervened or reprimanded those being hostile towards us.”
Karla Schuster, assistant vice president of university relations at Hofstra, told Rewire that contact or interaction motivated by bias is a violation of Hofstra’s code of conduct.
“During the debate, we worked hard to create an atmosphere in which students felt comfortable expressing their views and engaging in public demonstrations and protests on campus in a way that is respectful of others,” she said in an email.
Owens said her experience at college has been much better compared to what she faced in her Massachusetts high school during the last two years.
Owens helped organize a panel of peers, and later a concerned student group, that discussed the discrimination they faced in a public forum and demanded action from administrators. The backlash she faced from students and staff led Owens to skip prom and graduation last summer, she said, even though she was a high-achieving student.
“Racism is systemic and no university is truly exempt from that …. It’s clear that this is happening because a lot of closeted bigots now see no reason to remain closeted,” she said, adding that she is much happier at Hofstra where the support from her peers, professors, and staff has been “a huge change.”
She said the Intercultural Engagement and Inclusion office has kept her sane and also cited other organizations and student groups doing good work on campus, such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), the Black Student Union, the Pride Network, the Queer and Trans People of Color Coalition, the Student Advocates of Safer Sex, and the Campus Feminist Collective.
Shuster told Rewire Hofstra’s Diversity Advisory Board discusses these issues and holds meetings with student leaders.
Owens’ hometown and high school friend Botelho’s experience has not been quite as positive and the freshman is planning to transfer to the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, this fall so she can be closer to and live at home.
“The discrimination I’ve faced in my college campus has been similar to the oppression I’ve faced at [my high school, Voc-Tech],” she told Rewire. “I’m transferring to UMass in hopes I will have a better time. Obviously it will not be perfect, but I have the opportunity to leave and drive home. Living on a campus where you don’t feel safe at is a terrible feeling.”
Despite concerns raised by community members and students, the Voc-Tech school board and administration largely dismissed such criticism but began to implement programs to train staff and improve the school’s inclusiveness last year.
Botelho’s advice to fellow peers is to find a strong support system through progressive faculty members or students who may suffer similar discrimination: Follow your school’s protocols but if that is ineffective, make a course of action. Write a list of your demands and submit it to your administration. Consider connecting with progressive clubs in school and organizations like the NAACP and LGBTQ networks in your area as they could help and offer advice. It is also a good idea to familiarize yourself with your civil rights and read the school’s guidance around gathering and protesting on campus.
Owens, who had organized a group of students to fight racism at her high school, now spearheads “Concerned Students United, Inc.” at Curry College. She said she wants to support all students to help them understand their rights, the process of filing civil rights complaints, and ways to advocate for themselves to uplift the voices of their peers—to help them understand that they are not alone.
“We’re living in trying times. We’re living in times many people truly were unprepared for. Everything is happening so quickly and in a manner that does not allow anyone to breathe. It is especially important right now that students are informed,” she said. “I do intend to be among the group of activists preparing people to get through four years of this, to resist every single heinous piece of legislation [President Trump] signs, and [show them] how to navigate this hostile socio-political climate.”