How Institutions Can Better Respond to Campus Hate Crimes - Higher Education


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How Institutions Can Better Respond to Campus Hate Crimes

by Cameron Jesse Cox

I was in my first year of college the first time I attended a demonstration to decry injustice. A year prior, there was a physical altercation on campus stemming from the use of racial epithets and threats of violence. Before then, I had been conditioned to endure micro-aggressions and other encounters of episodic racism, but never had I experienced anything threatening or violent. This was the first time I had to think about with the potential threat posed against me because of my identities.

As we gear up for what is likely to be the most challenging, start of the academic year we’ve ever seen, we must be vigilant and equipped to respond to incidents involving hate and/or explicit bias. With the persistence of our country’s sociopolitical unrest, coupled with a looming presidential election poised to cause greater dissidence, we should expect the tension to continue on our campuses.

Navigating hate crimes and instances of bias has been a common occurrence throughout my career. I have worked through cases of identity-based hostility directed toward individual(s) because of their race, religion, sexual orientation, and political beliefs. Not surprisingly, some of these cases have involved threatening and sometimes violent behavior. I have presented on this topic at national conferences, and frequently network with colleagues on effective strategies.

Cameron Jesse Cox

Yet I am still baffled and disappointed by reports and stories of widespread institutional failure to adequately manage these situations.

The practices outlined below come from years of varied experiences having confronted hate crimes and explicit bias from my perspective as a course instructor, student support administrator, investigator, adjudicator, and victim. These strategies are meant to help institutions implement a coordinated community response to address acts of hate and explicit bias.

President/Chancellor/Senior Staff

As the leader(s) on campus it is crucial that your voices and actions set the tone for the campus response. Sending a communication acknowledging and condemning the incident(s) is the first order of business. This communication should be swift and addressed to the entire campus community. Timing is critical. As my colleague once put it, “wait too long, and you’ve lost the campus.” Automated messages delivered to the campus should be suspended and/or amended to address the incident. Further official communications should be developed in accordance with the response team. As key developments emerge, messages should reflect transparency and instill confidence in the reader. The campus should feel assured the administration is actively addressing the matter, and seeking accountability.

Housing/Student Support/Engagement

Campus student support professionals should work together to identify affected students. There are different ways and different degrees of severity in which hatred manifests itself. As such, the ways in which students respond will vary. There will be students who are directly and indirectly impacted. Students should be offered resources for support, including instructor and family notifications, academic accommodations, housing relocation, in addition to counseling services. Hate crimes can be triggering and may induce trauma. Counseling centers should consider the identities of any targeted groups. If your staff doesn’t feel sufficient to help students navigate their cultural identities, look to the outside community for assistance. Consider reaching out to nearby treating providers versed in cross-cultural issues in counseling. Administration may feel pressured to host large town hall like gatherings to address concerns. These can and should wait. If the institutional practice is to only host these forums in response to an incident, your diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts are likely reactionary and based on deficit model and need reexamining. Instead, hold affinity spaces students, faculty, and staff of targeted groups can gather and affirm their identities and experiences. Students will demonstrate their emotions in different manners. It is the responsibility of student affairs professionals, to assist students in channeling their energy into positive action. Students may want to protest, assemble to declare demands, and demonstrate in other ways that help them express their emotions. As educators, we must help our students seek constructive outlets while maintaining civility. After students and the campus is able to stabilize, then community forums to address embracing diversity can be held and should be continuous as part of the campus commitment to inclusion.

Campus Safety/Campus Police/Conduct Officers/Dean of Students

Anyone tasked with investigating the incident to find those responsible should take this seriously. Investigating these types of crimes require skill and training. If necessary, seek the assistance of local and federal law enforcement. If and when violators are identified, the adjudicators should weigh the severity of the offense in addition to the harm against the community. Consistency with college policies regarding appropriate sanctioning is key, and depending on the appropriateness, administrators should explore restorative practices. The ultimate goal is to provide a safe environment for students, faculty, and staff.

Faculty/Instructors

For faculty members and course instructors, acknowledgement in class is critical. Blatantly ignoring the environment outside of your class is inappropriate and does not help to cultivate a culture of inclusion. When appropriate, connect what is happening to course material. When I was a graduate teaching assistant, this was easy for me to do because I was teaching a course on diversity and social justice issues. For disciplines where this may not conventionally intersect, seek support from diversity administrators, faculty development, or your provost. The most useful help a faculty member can offer, is to accommodate students in distress.

Other Campus Staff

Anyone working on a college campus must understand their ultimate role and its connection to student success. Every office, every department, from athletics to facilities management, all have a role to play in the support of our students. If you don’t regularly encounter students, acknowledgment, affirmation, and referrals to the appropriate resources when necessary are a few ways to help. Other ways to be an active participant in the community healing efforts are to offer support to your colleagues working directly with students or those who may be affected by the incident themselves. This work is mentally and physically taxing. Demonstrate your care and support by checking in with the people you work with.

Our campuses are not impervious to individuals who harbor identity-based animosity. We do our best to encourage acceptance of difference. Still our diversity and inclusion efforts are incomplete without the tools and planning to protect ourselves, and actively help our campus communities heal from the harm inflicted by acts of hate.

Cameron Jesse Cox is an assistant dean of students at Colby College. 

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