Spray painting incident prompts response from Dean’s Office, Bias Response Team

On Tuesday, August 30, Public Safety responded to the report of a student seeing two swastikas spray-painted on the wall of the gender-neutral bathroom on the second floor of  McCabe Library. The Dean’s Office and the Bias Response Team then met to discuss the incident and decide on the appropriate course of action.

The Bias Response Team decided that the incident reached a critical level and it was therefore necessary to notify the entire Swarthmore community. The Bias Response Team was formed in fall of 2015 and is comprised of Mike Hill, Director of Public Safety, Zenobia Hargust, Director of Equal Opportunity and Engagement, Shá Duncan Smith, Associate Dean for Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Development and Liz Braun, Dean of Students. The team is charged with the task of evaluating each reported bias incident and determining the appropriate response.  Last year, the team received and responded to four reports of bias. Due to privacy reasons, they are not allowed to disclose all of the incidents reported to them.

The morning after the swastikas were discovered, President Smith sent an email to the entire community detailing the event, gave a history of the symbol, and encouraged people to contact Public Safety with any additional information.  

Jonathan Cohen ’17, a Jewish student and member of the Jewish Community, Kehilah, first found out about the incident from President Smith’s email. He thought the language used in the email did not accurately portray the severity of the event.

“The swastika is just a little symbol, its just eight right angles, six lines, but what’s in that symbol is more than bias. What’s in that symbol, when you write that symbol on the wall of that bathroom stall you’re putting a picture of the death of six milion of my people on that bathroom stall. You’re putting a picture of the fact that there were more Jews in the world in 1938 then there are today. This is not a bias. This is blatant racism and anti-semitism. If you’re going to just call this a bias than I don’t know what else can be more than bias,” said Cohen.

Jamie Starr ’19 is a leader in the Swarthmore Jewish Community Kehilah which aims to help Jewish students connect with their heritage and participate in Jewish traditions.

“I was a little shocked. You don’t expect these things to happen at a community like Swarthmore, which I think makes it harder to deal with. It’s less expected,” said Starr, “If we had heard about something like this happening at a larger university or a big southern state school where there’s more of a precedent for this type of hatred, I think it would have been less shocking than to have it at Swarthmore which not only is my home but also just this small intellectual community where you don’t expect things like this,” said Starr.

Kehilah’s Wednesday meeting changed its pre-planned agenda to discuss the incident. They saw an immediate need to provide a space for those who were having strong emotional responses. They sent an email to members of Kehilah and opened the common worship room on Thursday to allow students to express their feelings about the incident.

Duncan Smith said the administration is still in the process of responding to the event, and the emails are not the last of the Dean’s office’s actions. The school dedicated a portion of the previously-scheduled collection on Friday to a discussion about the incident and hate on campus. She also expressed concern about reaching everybody who needed help on campus.

“You’ve got 1,500 students you send an email out to all of them to say that we’re here to support you but if you don’t know who needs [support]… I would love to just figure out who those students are and really meet them where they’re at but it’s really hard to reach out just to a specific population of students when I feel like so many people are hurting over the situation,” said Duncan Smith.  

Many different organizations on campus such as the Intercultural Center, Black Cultural Center, Muslim Students’ Association, interfaith leader, and the Deans’ Office, have expressed a concern about the issue and wish to offer support to those who need it. Duncan Smith encourages students to reach out to the above resources on campus to find the support they need.

There have been several incidents of anti-semitism on Swarthmore’s campus in the past couple of years. This includes anti-semitic remarks on Yik Yak after a Menorah was stolen from Sharples last year.

Cohen believes the Dean’s Office is adequate in supporting the existing on-campus Jewish communities, but that it does not recognize the severity of the anti-semitism on campus. He also worries about how this incident and other similar occurrences will affect how Jewish students feel on campus. He expressed particular concern for freshmen who are just adapting to the new environment.

Duncan Smith, who started at the college over the summer, hopes to include more people in the conversation about campus inclusivity and community building.

“I’m not here to impose my vision, I’m here to inspire a shared vision,” said Duncan Smith, “I think that the biggest thing is to bring, [… ] students, bring faculty, bring staff to the table to talk about, […] how we are handling our bias incidents and really think about, are there ways that we enhance the different policies that we have.”

She stressed the need for the community to work together to discuss what the community should look like and how to reach that goal.

Public Safety is currently investigating the incident. If the person responsible is found they will be held accountable for their actions through the student conduct system.

1 Comment

  1. Unfortunately, as the members of Swarthmore Kehilah are are currently learning, racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, and antisemitism aren’t like coats that students can check at the door of elite institutions. They come in with everyone, and the great thing about a school like Swarthmore is that the majority of the student body is more or less committed figuring out how to identify and remove those coats to the best of their ability.

    However. I’ve been particularly annoyed by the reactions of members of Kehilah, especially when it comes to statements like (though by no means limited to) this quote “You don’t expect these things to happen at a community like Swarthmore, which I think makes it harder to deal with. It’s less expected…If we had heard about something like this happening at a larger university or a big southern state school where there’s more of a precedent for this type of hatred, I think it would have been less shocking than to have it at Swarthmore which not only is my home but also just this small intellectual community where you don’t expect things like this.”

    At a school like Swarthmore, where something like 15-20% of the school is Jewish, the vast majority of people condemn anything that is perceived to be anti-semitic, (and in a display of their normal lack of journalistic integrity, the Phoenix fails to mention that in one of the ‘incidents of antisemitism’ over the past few years ended when the menorah and the Christmas presents that were stolen along with it were returned a few days later. Unless you guys have very contrite bigots in this part of the country, this is not a typical anti-semite’s behavior), the president of the university sent out an all school email, and there’s an investigation by the bias response team. Yet you’re upset that someone called it bias and that other groups on campus didn’t immediately respond? And yet, somehow, you think it would be easier to deal with at a big state school, because there’s ‘more of a precedent for this kind of hatred’?

    As someone who grew up in a place like the one you are imagining, let me assure you: it’s actually just as, if not more alarming and difficult to deal with these incidences in a place where it’s normalized. Beginning in elementary school, I was prayed for, told I was going to hell, and asked why my people killed Jesus. A parent of a student I went to school with once mixed my sister and me up with a Korean girl and her sister because she was ‘thinking ethnic’. It got better as I got older, but even in high school there would be the not-so-occasional anti-semitic slur, or Holocaust joke, or just a change in someone’s face and demeanor when one of my friends outed me as Jewish. Or that time my coach reduced me to tears by castigating me in front of the entire team because I couldn’t make a tennis meet that was scheduled on the first night of Passover. And I had ok, especially compared to my friends of color.

    That is much, much more difficult to deal with than the school immediately reassuring the entire student body that anti-semitic hate speech will not be tolerated after a single incident of its occurrence. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t be troubled by the appearance of a giant spray painted swastika—you absolutely should—but maybe, if you want to be taken seriously by people who have actually experienced blatant, in-person hatred (other Jews, or POCs, or whatever) take some time to think about the ways in which you talk about it and how that might sound. Because regardless of your religious or ethnic background, nothing screams ‘I’m blind to my own white privilege’ than the condescending assumption that it would be easier to deal with hate speech if you were treated as a minority on a day-to-day basis. Trust me: it’s not.

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