Is shouting anti-Semitic insults while throwing a cup of beer a hate crime? What about posting white supremacist fliers, or mailing a postcard with anti-Semitic rhetoric to a law school professor?
With increasing awareness of hate crimes after the election of Donald Trump, colleges and universities are grappling with the definitions of hate crimes in a way they haven’t before, and reexamining their policies for dealing with offensive acts.
“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 Intelligence Project, which tracks hate groups.
Federal rules require colleges to track hate crimes on their campuses each year. But the rules from the federal Department of Education provide colleges latitude in determining whether offensive incidents — such as those recently at Brandeis University, Emerson College, and Harvard Law School — rise to the level of hate crimes.
That gap makes it difficult to track whether such events, often referred to as bias incidents, increased on college campuses during and after this year’s contentious presidential campaign,according to specialists who monitor prejudice and discrimination.
And without clear statistics, specialists said, it’s difficult to devise appropriate strategies to combat hateful acts.
Still, a number of Massachusetts colleges have launched additional cultural diversity programs, staff sensitivity training, even cellphone apps designed to help students feel safe on campus by connecting them with a buddy to walk with at night.
Shane Windmeyer, executive director of Campus Pride, a North Carolina nonprofit organization that develops programs to help lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender college students, has been training college leaders about hateful incidents since 2000. He said calls to his organization for assistance have grown tenfold in the past two months.
“What happens in high schools, what happens in colleges, is a look into the future of what’s going to happen in society,” Windmeyer said.
The Southern Poverty Law Center, the Alabama organization that has long tracked hateful acts, said it counted more than 1,000 incidents nationwide in the month following Trump’s election. College campuses were the third most common location for these actions, after elementary, middle and high schools, and certain businesses, such
The report noted a sharp uptick in white nationalist youth groups recruiting on college campuses, and listed nearly three dozen schools that apparently had been targeted, including two in Massachusetts — Amherst College and Emerson.
The Southern Poverty Law Center’s Beirich said there are still many unknowns.
“We really don’t have a sense of how often a person of color gets yelled at with an ugly name,” Beirich said. “What we do know is the data we have is a drop in the bucket.”
The US Department of Education defines a hate crime as a “criminal offense that manifests evidence that the victim was intentionally selected because of the perpetrator’s bias against the victim.”
The department’s latest guidance to colleges does not define bias incidents, but instead offers examples of how to determine if a bias-related offense rises to the level of a crime. Instances of swastikas spray-painted on student housing walls is listed as one example of an offense the department did not consider a hate crime.
Motivation is pivotal in determining whether an act is a hate crime, federal guidelines say. If a swastika was painted, for example, on the walls of a building housing a Jewish student group after a week of escalating religious tension, it might well be classified as a hate crime.
Tracking these types of incidents may get easier at Emerson, where the recent spate of white supremacist posters was deemed a bias incident as opposed to a hate crime.
Emerson administrators said they will, for the first time, release data at the end of the school year detailing, in aggregate, bias incidents.
That’s rare. While all schools are required under federal rules to report annually their number and type of hate crimes, few voluntarily publicize hateful offenses not classified as a crime.
Harvard Law School, where a professor last month received the anti-Semitic postcard with pro-Trump statements, determined the action was not a hate crime. A spokeswoman declined to release data about bias-related events at Harvard.
But school leaders issued several e-mails to students in the wake of the election noting deep concern about harassment and intimidation — including online bullying and hate speech — directed toward several students in the law school.
“In light of continued reports of bigoted messages or attacks on members of our community and many others beyond Harvard Law School, we want you to know we will do all that we are able to help ensure your safety and help provide you with resources to manage your own care,” said a Nov. 23 e-mail from Marcia Lynn Sells, the law school’s dean of students.
The e-mail listed a self-defense session and workshops for people interested in developing skills to support groups that have experienced “bigoted physical and verbal attacks.” It also encouraged students to download an updated cellphone app that includes “Walk Share,” a program for students “who may want to walk with a group or one other person when traveling late in the evening.”
Suffolk University this year introduced a similar cellphone app, and in October sent all students and employees a survey.
“The goal is to determine how members of our community feel about the current climate, and to what degree we are inclusive and supportive, with the idea that to better address our challenges, we need to understand where we are and the perspectives of our community members,” said university spokesman Greg Gatlin.
At Brandeis, where a driver yelled anti-Semitic statements at a student late one evening last month, and threw a cup of beer at him, administrators ruled the event a hate crime. Brandeis intends to include the event in the school’s 2016 crime data report to regulators.
A spokeswoman said the school does not publicly report hateful incidents that were not ruled a crime, but campus police track them so they are ready to respond should a pattern arise. School leaders, however, were intrigued to learn of Emerson’s plans to publicly report bias-related incidents.
“We are always trying to learn from what our peer institutions are doing, and so we will keep a close eye on what Emerson and others do in this regard,” Julie Jette, a Brandeis spokeswoman, said in a statement.
Brandeis, like a number of other Massachusetts colleges, hosted several meetings and a campuswide town hall that encouraged students to discuss the election and its aftermath.
But administrators at Boston College took a more muted approach, according to some student leaders, who said there have been instances of anti-gay speech and racist graffiti in recent months.
“It’s kind of strange that at our university, a Jesuit institution, that they haven’t really taken on the issue of hate speech, and haven’t really been a voice for progressive change at all,” said Matthew Hahm, a senior and student organizer with Massachusetts Peace Action, an anti-nuclear, pro-peace organization.
Another group, Eradicate Boston College Racism, has chastised administrators for not taking a more public stance in support of undocumented students, even as the president-elect has pledged to deport millions of immigrants.
Those sentiments were echoed in a letter sent by about 50 faculty members late last month to school administrators, imploring them to speak up.
Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn said in a statement that the Rev. William Leahy, the school’s president, signed two national statements from a coalition of colleges supporting undocumented students.
“He has consistently stated his expectation that all members of the BC community treat each other with dignity and respect,” Dunn said. “Any suggestion to the contrary is incorrect.”
Kay Lazar can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.