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.