How Are Colleges Handling Hate Crimes?

By<A href="">Oliver L ibaw</A>

May 11, 2001 -- When Penn State seniors graduate this weekend, they will see the typical assortment of smiling faces and proud parents — but also metal detectors and, in one student's case, university-provided bodyguards.

The unusual security measures — prompted by a bomb threat and several threatening racist letters sent to two black students and a trustee — are the latest visible evidence of the ongoing struggle with hate crime and race on America's campuses.

Diversity as an Opportunity and a Challenge

It's an issue that has grown in importance as the makeup of colleges across the country has changed.

"There's no place that's as diverse as a college campus," says Oliver Clark, chief of police and director of public safety at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

The number of nonwhite students has climbed steadily, and according to a study last year by the Educational Testing Service, minorities will outnumber white college students in California, Hawaii, New Mexico and Washington, D.C., by 2015.

With all that change, diversity has become the largest issue behind unrest on campus, accounting for 39 percent of student protests, according to a study by Arthur Levine, the president of Columbia University's Teacher's College.

Incidents on Campuses Around the Country

Accompanying that unrest have been hate crimes. The Department of Justice says 802 hate crimes at colleges and universities were reported to police in 1999, the most recent year statistics are available. That number has stayed roughly constant since the government began compiling specific hate crime data in the mid-1990s.

Schools such as the University of Maryland and the University of Iowa have coped with racist threats to students in recent years, and an unemployed man was convicted of setting off two pipe bombs at historically black Florida A&M university in the fall of 1999.

Besides threats and acts of terror, institutions often face more minor acts of hate, such as racist graffiti and vandalism. Schools ranging from Stanford University to Mesa State College, in California, had such outbreaks earlier this year, for example.

"I would say probably all campuses have these problems from time to time," Clark says.

Alcohol, Newfound Independence Exacerbate the Trouble

Experts point to several factors that can fuel race-related problems on campus, including the fact that college students often must adjust to a much more diverse environment than exists their home communities. Students also face much less direct supervision than they might have at home.

Additionally, alcohol plays a major role in racial incidents on campus, says Howard Clery, the founder of Security On Campus, Inc., a group that lobbies for safer universities.

"The alcohol problem is related," he says, citing two recent cases at State University of New York Campuses in Oneonta and Cobleskill, where students drinking in off-campus bars exchanged racial slurs and began fighting, leaving several hospitalized with serious injuries.

Underlying Tensions Make a Tough Problem Tougher

The racial tensions that can spark problems often also make it more difficult for schools to handle them.

It is crucial that university officials, law enforcement and student groups have each other's trust before a hate crime takes place, says Dan Losada, a Hastings, Neb., police lieutenant.

Losada led the investigation of a reported racially motived kidnapping of a black student at Hastings College last year. The report was eventually uncovered as a hoax.

"If the incident has already occurred, building bridges is tough," he says. "Everybody's on edge."

As at Penn State, leaders of minority student groups have often voiced their mistrust of university officials.

Allegations of an Underlying Problem

Some leaders in Penn State's black student community, which makes up 4 percent of university's 40,571-person enrollment, have complained there is an undercurrent of racism on campus behind the recent threats.

Students occupied a school building for a week to protest how officials had handled the problem, and outside leaders including the NAACP and the Pennsylvania's Congressional Black Caucus weighed in on the issue.

"Enough has not been done to address the issues of safety on this campus" the NAACP's Rev. Jeffery Johnson told protesting students during the standoff.

The problem began last fall, when several black students and a university trustee received threatening letters. But April's demonstrations were sparked by a letter to the college's Black Caucus President LaKeisha Wolf , saying a black man's body would be found near the campus.

Shortly afterward, a black man was shot dead 20 miles from Penn State, at a different location than that specified in the letter. Police maintain there is no connection, but worried students demanded more protection.

The protests died down after school officials agreed to increase efforts to promote racial equality and expand black-studies programs. They also agreed to increase security at graduation, after a threat to bomb the ceremonies was mailed to the college newspaper.

Using the Ordeal as an Opportunity

The campus unrest appears to have abated, leaving university officials to reflect on how they handled the situation.

"I think the most important thing we have learned is to cooperate quickly and openly with law enforcement, and to keep as many people informed as possible," says Christy Rambeau, a university spokeswoman.

Penn State may be ultimately be better off from the ordeal, says Debra Humphreys, an official with the American Association of Colleges and Universities.

"They have taken this incident as a catalyst and opportunity to improve diversity," she says.

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events