Metro

Merrimack College students learn about hate crimes from ADL

NORTH ANDOVER — After a vandal last year scrawled the messages “Jews belong in the oven,” “Destroy Islam,” and “Heil Hitler” on a subway car map in New York City, commuters banded together with hand sanitizer and wipes to erase the hateful rhetoric.

The power of strangers coming together to fight hate struck a chord with Miranda Belanger, a criminology and social justice student at Merrimack College who heard the story Thursday night during a hate crimes presentation given by the Anti-Defamation League.

“That kind of resonated with me because the subway crowd all worked together to get rid of that message,” said Belanger, 20. “It just showed that we as a community can work together to prevent those types of crimes from affecting so many people.”

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The presentation by Talia Ben Sasson-Gordis, senior associate regional director for the ADL in New England was delivered as Massachusetts and the nation experience an uptick in hate crimes.

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“When hate crimes are committed, they don’t only impact the individual victim, the individual victim’s family. They have a wider ripple effect,” said Ben Sasson-Gordis, who addressed students at Crowe Hall on the Catholic college’s campus.

FBI statistics released earlier this month revealed hate crimes rose 9 percent in Massachusetts last year from 2016 and 17 percent nationwide, rising for the third straight year across the country.

The 7,175 incidents reported nationally in 2017 reflect not only more crimes, but also more law enforcement agencies providing data to the FBI. Nearly 900 additional departments submitted data on hate crime in 2017 than had done so in 2016, the agency said.

A total of 427 hate crimes were reported in Massachusetts in 2017, up from 391 in 2016, according to FBI data. Of the 2017 incidents, 232 were related to race, ethnicity, or ancestry; 118 were connected to the victims’ religion; and 65 were based on their sexual orientation.

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In an interview, Ben Sasson-Gordis said the ADL is being asked more frequently to speak with law enforcement agencies and community groups about hate crimes.

“When I’m talking with law enforcement or community members, I want them to leave with an awareness of what a hate crime is and the special impact that hate crimes have on communities and not just the victims of the attacks,” she said.

Her presentation delved into the definition of hate crimes and how they differ from hate incidents, which are considered acts of bullying or abuse that don’t rise to the level of criminal conduct but can be traced to the perpetrator’s bias against a particular group.

The event was sponsored by the college’s Criminology Club, which also brought Northeastern University professor emeritus Jack Levin to campus on Tuesday to discuss hate crimes, said Paul Zipper, a state police captain who teaches at Merrimack College.

Zipper, who teaches a hate crimes course at the school, said it’s important to raise awareness about the issue.

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He said police officers need to do a better job of looking for signs that a crime may be motivated by hate or bias.

“I don’t think the average police officer who goes to one of these scenarios is asking about bias indicators,” he said. “The issue is, ‘Are they asking the right questions to determine whether hate was a factor?’”

Brandon Landry, a criminal justice student who is studying hate crimes this semester, said for class he researched the life of Pulse nightclub victim Stanley Manolo Almodovar III , 23, a pharmacy technician who was born in Springfield.

Landry, 20, said he was moved by Almodovar’s efforts to try to save people from the gunman before being fatally shot.

“At the time he’d only be a few years older than I am now,” he said. “It’s surreal to put yourself in that situation.”

Alyssa Yetter, an assistant professor of criminology at Merrimack , said students need to learn the far-reaching impact of hate crimes.

“A lot of our students want to become police officers or work with victims in some way and I think it’s very important that they have an understanding of the seriousness of hate crimes,” she said.

Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.