Colleges are covering up antisemitic hate crimes - and the federal government is helping them

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Binghamton University in upstate New York is known as one of the top colleges for Jewish life in the United States. A quarter of the student population identifies as Jewish. Kosher food is on the meal plan. There are five historically-Jewish Greek chapters and a Jewish a capella group, Kaskeset.

When a swastika was drawn on a bathroom stall in Binghamton’s Bartle Library in March 2017, the administration was quick to condemn it. In a statement co-signed by the Hillel director, the school’s vice president of student affairs said bluntly: “Binghamton University does not tolerate hate crimes, and we take all instances of this type of action very seriously.”

But when Binghamton, which is part of the State University of New York system, filed its mandatory annual report about campus crime with the federal Department of Education, it said no vandalism hate crimes had occurred in 2017.

Ryan Yarosh, the university spokesman, explained in an interview that the incident had not been listed in the federal report because there was not enough evidence that it was motivated by bias. Asked what else might drive someone to paint a swastika on a bathroom stall, he said: “You would have to consult with the Department of Education on the criteria they developed, as we are simply following their guidelines.”

Indeed, the Department of Education guidelines, last updated in 2016, leaves murky how antisemitic vandalism should be handled. And Binghamton is hardly the only school leaving swastikas and other hateful symbols and slogans out of their federal filings.

A Forward analysis comparing news reports of campus antisemitism between 2016 and 2018 to the filings for those years found that fewer than half of the incidents that could have been reported as hate crimes actually were. Our of a total of 158 incidents at 64 schools, 93 — including antisemitic vandalism at brand-name schools known for vibrant Jewish communities like Harvard, Princeton, MIT, UCLA and the University of Maryland — were left out of the federal filings.

Universities are required to annually report crimes on their campuses under the Clery Act, a 1990 law named for 19-year-old Jeanne Clery, who was raped and murdered in her dorm room at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania. But reporting on murders is far more straightforward, it turns out, than counting bias crimes like the one in the Binghamton bathroom.

Many universities interpret the guidelines as narrowly as possible, leaving out antisemitic vandalism that would likely be categorized as hate crimes if they happened off-campus. While there is no data suggesting that anti-Jewish vandalism is treated differently than vandalism targeting other minority groups, some Jewish leaders and students are concerned that the spotty reporting is part of a broader problem of university administrators not understanding the scope and seriousness of antisemitism on campuses today.

Mark Rotenberg, a former general counsel at Johns Hopkins University and the University of Minnesota who is now a vice president at Hillel International, said the reports are “woefully undercounting hate crimes.” He attributed this both to weaknesses in the Department of Education’s guidance, and to what he described as a lack of awareness among university administrators “that anti-Semitism has spiked in this country to an all-time high.”

“Jewish students don’t experience a swastika in a library or a dorm hallway as just a vandalism misdemeanor under state law,” Rotenberg said. “They understand it as targeted harassment of their own identity, as an attack on their own Jewishness.”

The Department of Education’s press office repeatedly declined to comment over months of reporting this story, including a list of specific questions emailed to spokesperson Jim Bradshaw on July 30.

The Forward also sent emails with detailed questions to 80 colleges and universities where our examination of news reports found possible antisemitic hate crimes. Fifty-nine of these campuses responded on the record. Perhaps unsurprisingly, schools that included antisemitic hates crimes in their federal filings were more likely to respond than those that did not.

Janet Gilmore, a spokeswoman at the University of California, Berkeley, challenged the idea of comparing incidents reported in the moment with the federal filings, called Annual Security and Fire Safety Reports. “The purpose of the ASFSR is to provide aggregate crime statistics and campus safety and security policies to allow the community to make informed decisions about their safety,” Gilmore said. “It is not the intended purpose of the statute or the ASFSR to provide the general public with a detailed case analysis involving specific reported incidents.”

But Elisa Lopez, who oversees Clery Act compliance at the University of Wisconsin — which disclosed 14 swastika-vandalism incidents in 2016 — said she viewed the annual report as a crucial tool of transparency for students, parents and taxpayers.

“It’s our job to present information as complete as possible,” Lopez said. “Especially important crime and Clery-related information.”

Tracking the hate

Jeanne Clery’s parents, Howard and Constance, lobbied for the legislation requiring these annual crime reports, saying they never would have sent their daughter to Lehigh had they known about its 38 on-campus assaults in the three years before her death.

The law requires all colleges and universities, private or public, that get federal funding to annually report all crimes that occurred on their campuses over the previous three years. They must make the information available on their websites, as well as on one maintained by the Department of Education.

Schools that leave out information can be penalized. In 2017, 10 colleges were fined $30,000 to $210,000 each for undercounting crime statistics or failing to properly distribute their reports. Michigan State University was fined a record $4.5 million in 2019 for reports that did not include assaults by Larry Nassar, the convicted sex offender who worked as a doctor for the MSU and U.S. Olympic gymnastics teams.

While the Clery and Nassar cases are examples of the most serious felony offenses, the law also requires reporting of more than a dozen other categories of crimes. Hate crimes are much less frequent than other reportable offenses like robberies or stalking (to say nothing of liquor-law violations), but it is not unusual for a campus to report one or two in a given year. That tally includes hate crimes motivated by religion, race, gender, sexuality and other biases.

Several Jewish organizations, including the Anti-Defamation League and the California-based AMCHA Initiative, track antisemitic incidents on college campuses, and say they are on the rise, with perpetrators both from the Nazi-sympathizing right and the Israel-critical left. But no one had previously compared these trackers with the federal filings.

To do so, the Forward created a database of antisemitic incidents between 2016 and 2018 reported by the ADL and AMCHA, or in our own pages, at the 215 campuses featured in the 2018 Forward College Guide. We then filtered the thousands of such instances to remove those that did not fit the Clery Act’s definition of hate crimes, leaving 182 seemingly reportable events.

A sign at the University of Oregon Hillel was vandalized, 
July 2018.
To understand our approach, consider the University of Minnesota. When the student body there voted in 2018 to call for divesting school funds from Israel, some Jews on campus said the campaign included antisemitic rhetoric, but no individual incident rose to the level of a criminal act, so we did not look for this in the federal reports. But we did check for the 2017 incident in which a student at the same school was arrested after burning an image of a swastika into a residence hall desk.

Minnesota’s inclusion of the swastika-burning in its federal reports seems to be an exception. Our analysis found that of the 64 campuses where reportable antisemitic hate crimes occurred, 39 left some or all of them out of their federal filings. (There were 14 additional campuses where we found such discrepancies, but learned that the incidents had either happened off campus or no one had filed a police report, rendering them ineligible for Clery Act reporting. We also found two places where swastika incidents were reported as hate crimes targeting a non-Jewish minority group.)

At Rutgers University in New Jersey, which has one of the largest Jewish student populations in the country, watchdog groups counted at least 16 examples of antisemitic graffiti between 2016 and 2018, including 15 swastikas, some accompanied by messages like “NO KIKES HERE” and “get them all.” But Rutgers’ federal report covering those years discloses only two hate crimes motivated by religious bias. The university’s director of media relations did not respond to detailed questions sent by email.

Similarly, in the first four months of 2018, Ithaca College’s public safety logs showed three incidents of swastika vandalism in bathrooms, two of which the campus police department classified as “Aggravated harassment 1st degree.” They also showed an incident in which a Jewish student’s mezuzah was knocked off his door. But Ithaca did not report any hate crimes to the federal government that year.

For a full list of possible antisemitic hate crimes that were not included in universities’ federal reports, as well as those schools’ explanations, click here.

This analysis does not include what some Jewish students have described as an unwelcome campus climate, where they feel ostracized for their Zionist advocacy and sometimes have events boycotted, protested or even shouted down by pro-Palestinian activists. That tension almost never manifests as something that the Clery Act would consider reportable as a hate crime, though Tammi Rossman-Benjamin, the director of the AMCHA Initiative, said that such “silencing” can have more of a negative effect on Jewish students’ collegiate experiences than a swastika on a bathroom wall.

Unlike the often vague — and frequently contested — sentiments of feeling unwelcome, swastika vandalism is specific and concrete, so it’s easy to track when events happen and what universities do in response.

Seventeen university spokespeople contacted about their failure to include antisemitic incidents in their federal filings, like Binghamton’s Yarosh, said they were simply following the Department of Education’s guidance, which states that they are not obligated to report every swastika-vandalism case.

At five other schools — Brandeis University, Emory University, Portland State University, the University at Buffalo and George Washington University – administrators said that the failure to report antisemitic incidents had been an inadvertent error.

At GW, when Nazi symbols were written on signs in a residence hall in December 2017, a university spokesperson specifically promised in the student newspaper that it would be noted as a hate crime in the following federal report. When we asked why it was not, GW’s assistant director of media relations, Crystal Nosal, said it was because of staff turnover.

Blake Goodman, who was a freshman at the time, said he was “sadly unsurprised” to hear this.

“While the campus administration staffing hasn’t been consistent, the presence of antisemitism has been,” Goodman, now a senior, said in an interview. “If something as glaringly obvious as a swastika can’t be classified as an antisemitic hate crime, what can be?”

The letter of the law

But the Department of Education’s Handbook for Campus Safety and Security Reporting makes it anything but “glaringly obvious.”

The 265-page document, using an FBI definition, describes 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.”

Rotenberg, the former university lawyer who now works at Hillel, said this definition “does not fit” the majority of campus incidents, noting that swastikas and other bigoted symbols and slogans are often plastered in public places, which many Jewish students experience as an affront against all Jews, though no individuals were, as the definition puts it, “intentionally selected.”

The handbook says that something is more likely to be a hate crime if the offender is of a different race or religion than the victim – but that’s impossible to ascertain if the offender is never caught. And an incident is more likely to be a hate crime if the victim is a member of a minority group – but, as Teri Taylor, the records manager at the University of California, Santa Cruz, police department explained, if the vandalism occurs at a campus library rather than at a Hillel or on a student’s door, the “victim” is technically the university itself.

Of the 17 administrators who said in interviews that they did not report antisemitic incidents because of the Department of Education guidelines, a dozen cited the handbook’s Scenario 5, which outlines an example of swastika vandalism.

There are 12 hypothetical scenarios listed in the handbook’s hate-crimes section, four dealing with religious bias. Three of these, according to the Department of Education, should be reported as hate crimes. Scenario 6: During a contentious campus debate over the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, someone spray-paints on a hallway where a Jewish student group lives. Scenario 7: Police find a vandalized photo exhibit of famous Muslim-Americans at the same time they discover a defaced flier advertising a Muslim student group. Scenario 10: A white person shoves a Sikh student and pulls off his turban while yelling, “We don’t want your kind in this neighborhood.”

Then there is Scenario 5.

“Several students call the campus security office to report swastikas spray-painted on the walls in a hallway of an on-campus student housing facility. Campus security personnel investigate but cannot find conclusive evidence that the markings were bias-motivated. Do not include this incident as a Hate Crime in your Clery Act statistics.”

Even if the perpetrator is caught and found to have prejudicial views, “knowing that an offender is prejudiced is not enough to classify a crime as a Hate Crime,” the handbook says. “There must be evidence that the offender was motivated by that prejudice to commit the crime.”

Mark Eyerly, a spokesman for Lafayette College, cited Scenario 5 to explain why his school reported no hate crimes in 2016, a year in which a residence-hall bathroom and bulletin board were defaced with the Nazi symbol in separate incidents.

“A swastika painted on the wall of an elevator in a college dorm does not necessarily equate to a hate crime,” Eyerly said, citing a Clery Act training that staff attended before the 2017 report was published. “We would need more facts, and they may never become known.”

Laura Egan of the Clery Center, which was founded by Jeanne Clery’s parents and helps universities comply with the namesake law, said that a question about the Department of Education’s guidelines for reporting swastika vandalism “comes up in every single one of our trainings.”

Some university officials responsible for filing the reports acknowledged that the requirements can seem counterintuitive.

“’How can you draw a swastika in a non-biased way?’ I have the same perception myself,” said Taylor of UC Santa Cruz. But, she added, the Department of Education handbook and the FBI definitions contained within it are clear: if there isn’t a specific intended Jewish victim, it’s not a hate crime under the Clery Act.

“We’ve had to work very hard to make sure that we are following the descriptions, the criteria, and ensuring that we are defining these in a way that is accurately a hate crime or accurately not a hate crime,” Taylor said. “We don’t want to misreport.”

Egan said the Department of Education occasionally does spot checks, asking a university, for example, to provide documentation that what was described as a hate crime fits the definition. It could, theoretically, fine a school for misclassifying an event as a hate crime just as it could for failing to report one.

Yet several schools, including Columbia University, American University and Queens College, included in their annual reports antisemitic vandalism incidents that took place in public places like bathrooms.

Rossman-Benjamin, of the AMCHA Initiative, said that because Jewish identity is a mix of religion, culture and peoplehood, anti-discrimination laws don’t fully fit.

“The problem for Jewish students isn’t the lack of enforcement of these laws, it’s the laws themselves, which essentially leave some people unprotected,” she said.

‘Firm believers in transparency’

The Forward’s close examination of the reports at more than 200 campuses revealed a variety of approaches to the Clery Act.

At Hampshire College in Massachusetts, for example, administrators officially reported one vandalism hate crime in 2017, which it described as anti-Black and anti-trans. But the school also noted in its filing three “additional incidents involving hate” that did not meet the Clery Act standard, two of which involved “anti-Jewish graffiti in public areas.”

Others took a maximalist approach. Stanford University reported 22 hate-crime vandalism incidents in 2017, all of them swastikas, though at least 14 of these, according to the AMCHA Initiative, were in public places and no perpetrator was ever identified.

A prospective student might conclude that Stanford had an antisemitism problem, when in fact it was just being more thorough than, say, Rutgers, in its reporting. (Stanford did not respond to a request for comment.)

The University of Wisconsin, which similarly had a spate of neo-Nazi vandalism incidents in 2016, also disclosed all 14 of its incidents, which campus police attributed to a single perpetrator.

And after The Forward’s inquiry, Wisconsin administrators updated their report to recategorize two 2017 incidents that it had already disclosed as hate-crime vandalism, changing them instead to hate-crime intimidation, a more serious designation.

“We are firm believers in transparency,” said Lopez, the university’s Clery Act compliance director. “It’s not only extremely important for our department, but for our university as a whole.”

But that view is relatively rare. One university official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, admitted that the Clery Act system effectively incentivizes schools to minimize disclosure.

“You want to be as transparent as possible, but calling it out at all, you get questions about your reporting,” the official said. “We err on the side of over-communicating about bias incidents, because they’re of interest to our community and antithetical to our values. But it’s a real tension in communication decisions – the more you talk about something, the more attention you get for it.”

Most universities do inform students via email that an antisemitic incident has occurred, most of the time. Sometimes they do so even when the incident falls outside what everyone agrees are the bounds of the Clery Act, such as if they take place in off-campus apartments, or if nobody files a police report.

Image by Siamak Kordestani/Twitter...
A swastika found at San Francisco State University, May 2019.
And of course, what first seems like antisemitism can turn out to be something else. After what appeared to be a Star of David with a swastika inside it was found in a classroom at Franklin & Marshall College, an investigation led by the school’s Hillel director concluded that the drawing was actually the symbol of Raelism, a religious movement that worships aliens.

Even graffiti that does appear to be aimed at Jews does not affect all Jewish students the same way. When anti-Jewish and racist graffiti was found in a cubicle in a Lehigh University library in 2018, for example, Michael Rosenberg, a senior at the time, described it as “something more dumb than cruel” and felt the university “handled it as well as it could have.” But Jordan Wolman, who was a sophomore, said he thought the drawing was “far from a one-off” and that the college wanted to “brush this off and sweep it under the rug.”

Goodman, the GW student, said that his university’s initial response to the hateful vandalism and failure to include it in the federal report left him skeptical.

“I remember the incident serving as the first of many reality checks during my time at GW, when I realized that no community is immune from antisemitism,” he said. “I expected the university to use the moment to create a zero-tolerance policy on incidents of antisemitism. Almost three years later, these incidents are still occurring on campus.”

Aiden Pink is the deputy news editor of the Forward. Contact him at pink@forward.com or follow him on Twitter @aidenpink

Source: forward