Oct. 1, 2008 — -- Four college students have confessed to hanging a cardboard effigy of Barack Obama from a tree on their Oregon campus last week, school officials said today.
The George Fox University students were immediately issued long-term suspensions and mandatory community service, according to a statement released by the school.
School officials at the Christian university declined to identify the four students or provide further details about their punishment. Local police are not pursuing the incident because they didn't find the act to be criminal, but the FBI has opened a preliminary investigation into whether or not any civil rights laws were violated, according to FBI spokeswoman Beth Ann Steele.
A George Fox University employee discovered the life-size cutout of the Democratic presidential candidate hanging from a campus tree last week with a fishing line around its neck. Posted on the cardboard effigy was a sign that read "Act Six Reject." Act Six is a program that promotes campus diversity and urban leadership. It awards full scholarships to up to 10 students annually; most of them -- but not all -- are minorities.
The school's president, Robin Baker, issued a public statement condemning the act and emphasizing the school's commitment to fostering racial diversity.
"We want the world to know that we take diversity and racial reconciliation very seriously and that this abhorrent act that was senselessly carried out by a few students does not in any way reflect the commitments and beliefs of this institution. There is no excuse for this behavior," Baker said in the statement
Dean of transitions and inclusions Joel Perez, who oversees diversity initiatives at George Fox, said there was relief that the students who were apparently involved had been identified.
"It helps bring some closure," Perez said. "But this particular incident highlighted that we have a lot of work to do in our diversity training."
The school has initiated several new programs to respond to the incident including forming an advisory council on diversity with community members outside the school, developing a new school curriculum to educate students about racial issues, and initiating peer-to-peer dialogue about racism led by student groups.
Perez said that while he was not sure of the perpetrators' motive, he hoped that the entire student body understood the gravity of the incident.
"Hanging a black man from a tree is an image that obviously displays something that we as a country are not very proud of in our history," Perez said. "It's still something that needs to be taken seriously, even if they didn't realize the importance of the image. It has a lot of emotional history and demonstrates racism."
According to Perez, reaction to the students' punishment was mixed, but everyone was still talking about the racially charged incident that rocked the campus last week.
Robin Baker told ABCNews.com that he was "shocked, dismayed and disturbed" by the incident.
"I'm upset because it's an assault to kids I love, and I'm upset because it's an attack on the very commitment I have, to try to build a place that will truly educate students in a way that will help them see the world differently," he said.
Baker strongly condemned the act the day after the cutout was discovered during an emotional school gathering that drew 1,200 people. Baker also addressed the 17 Act Six students who attend George Fox the night of the incident. Many were unaware of what had happened before the meeting, because the cutout was promptly removed; only a few students saw it, according to the college.
Baker said the Act Six students urged him and the school to be open about the incident and tackle it head on.
Jen Psaki, a spokeswoman for the Illinois senator, told ABC News last week that "This was an unfortunate incident, but over the course of the last 19 months, we have had a very positive response from Oregonians across the state."
In a letter drafted to Obama, Baker apologized for the incident and made clear that it did not reflect the college's views on his candidacy.
"Our campus community was outraged and disheartened by this unfortunate incident and would like to extend our deepest apologies to you and your family for any harm this may have caused," Baker said in the letter. "Please know that this incident does not represent how our community feels about issues of race or your candidacy."
George Fox is a predominantly white Christian college with 1,800 students. The incoming freshman class is the school's most diverse, with minorities making up 25 percent of it. George Fox was founded in 1891 by Quakers, a group known for its tolerance, making the incident all the more hard to swallow for students and administrators.
"I joined this community as an undergrad in 1988, and I have never seen an act of overt racism," said school spokesman Rob Felton. "Universally, every single person who hears about this finds it offensive and believes it is diametrically opposed to the values that we as a Christian college espouse."
Sophomore Ryan Moats, who is Hispanic and one of the school's Act Six students, was surprised by the incident because he personally hadn't faced racism on campus.
"The initial reaction was just shock because there's never been anything like this on campus," he said. "I would say there is a little bit of outrage not just from minorities but from people in general."
But Moats said the incident had sparked dialogue on the issue of racism.
"It's hard to comprehend that it takes something this horrible and this ugly to make us talk," Moats said. "But it opened our eyes and our hearts to more discussion about diversity and politics, and things we might not have ordinarily wanted to talk about."
Tim Herron, Act Six's national director, said there was a lot to learn from the incident.
"The ignorance and racism behind this incident was exactly what lead to the founding of [this organization]," Herron said. "Part of what we have tried to do in Act Six is prepare young people to be able to confront and challenge those prejudices in a constructive way."
This is exactly what Felton hopes will emerge from this racially charged incident. He said that the effigy's hanging brings to light important issues that need to be discussed not only on his campus but around the country.
"It sparks an important conversation that we need to have about race in our culture. It's not something we can brush under the rug," he said.
ABC News' Sunlen Miller contributed to this report.