On the night of Dec. 15, when few students were on campus, Public Safety received a report of an unidentified person in McCabe Library’s lower-level restroom with a newspaper depicting a hand-drawn swastika on the front page.
Officials responded, and asked the individual to leave the building. According to Director of Public Safety Michael Hill, the visitor did not initially comply with that request, even though they were in violation of the library’s visitor policy, which restricts the public’s access to McCabe after 10:00PM. The person was banned from campus property. Hill affirmed this in an e-mail statement to students the following day.
This altercation followed a trend of vandalisms in the borough this fall semester. There have been multiple occasions of swastika graffiti found on and near campus — once each in the Crum Woods, the North Cunningham Parking Lot, the Swarthmore Rutledge School playground, and repeated times in the stalls of McCabe’s restrooms. None of these past incidences could be linked to a person or group.
A second bias incident was reported on the same day. A student found a flyer containing white supremacist themes tucked inside a McCabe-owned issue of National Geographic. The magazine issue centered on LGBT themes―a reminder of the November incident in which a swastika was found in a gender-neutral bathroom shortly after a candlelight vigil in honor of the Transgender Day of Remembrance.
In the wake of these events, community discussion has centered around campus safety, support for affinity groups and students of a wide range of identities, and ways to confront intolerance on campus grounds and beyond.
Rabbi Adam Lavitt, the Jewish Student Advisor, is a counselor to and resource for students in the Jewish community. He conducts Shabbat services and assists Jewish student groups on campus. Lavitt believes the incidents reveal a trend that is unique to neither the campus nor the district.
“I really feel like Swarthmore is a microcosm of the national tone that’s been emerging in the last several months,” he noted.
His observation is relevant in light of the recent inauguration of President Donald Trump, whose comments against immigrants, women, and others have preceded a wave of hate crimes against persons of color and other marginalized identities across the country, according to reports by CNN.
Simona Dwass ’19, co-president of the Jewish student organization Kehilah, reflected on the implications of the vandalisms in a national context.
“I think [the incidents] address a bigger concern which is that antisemitism is really prevalent on college campuses, and no one realizes it because they think it is a thing of the past,” she said.
Citing his trust in the inclusive and accepting values of the community, Lavitt was not surprised to learn that the person Public Safety apprehended in December was not a member of the college. Dwass later echoed this sentiment.
Tiauna Lewis ’19, an employee of McCabe, expressed her unease knowing that the perpetrator does not belong to the college. She also recognized that her occupation as a student may shelter her understanding of the climate of the broader community.
“There’s a sense of paranoia. I think that the first step we should take is to figure out who is doing it, whether it is multiple people, when it’s happening, and why it’s happening,” she observed.
As stated on the college’s website, the Bias Response Team was created to establish how the college defines a bias incident and to respond to reports of incidents such as harassment and hate crimes. The Bias Response Team is composed of Director of Public Safety Michael Hill, Dean of Students Liz Braun, Associate Dean of Diversity T. Shá Duncan Smith, and Deputy Title IX Coordinator Zenobia Hargust.
In response to this chain of events, the team has met with impacted community members to evaluate the next steps it can take as a group that values community input. Over email, Dean Braun described how these meetings have prompted efforts to increase outreach.
“We have worked collaboratively with [affected people] to think about broader campus climate issues and come up with a variety of steps to help raise awareness and educate the campus more fully,” she wrote.
Dean Smith has also backed efforts to promote inclusivity and educate community members. In an e-mail, she explained that an intersectional antisemitism training planned for last semester was postponed due to low enrollment. She plans to reschedule the training this semester and noted that she will be hosting a variety of events centered on community participation throughout the spring. One program, titled “Salt & Solutions,” will entail a series of lunches in which community members will pose a “problem statement,” and the campus community members will work together in smaller groups to dissect it.
“The purpose of this opportunity is … to work together as a group or team towards a solution while leveraging and building emotional intelligence and intercultural understanding,” she explained.
Still, several community members expressed reservations with regards to how administrative officials have dealt with the aftermath of the incidents.
“When that first swastika incident happened, there were many students who didn’t feel that there was an adequate internal response,” Rabbi Lavitt recalled, referring to the Aug. 30 incident in which two swastikas were found spray-painted on a bathroom stall in McCabe.
In a September news article in The Phoenix, Jonathan Cohen ’17 expressed that the administration did not fully address the needs of students and affected members following the first incidents. Dwass also shared these views.
“Initially there was one e-mail sent out, and that was it. No one reached out to Rabbi Adam and said, ‘what can we do for the Jewish population?’” she remarked.
Lewis said she hopes to see the faculty address the events further.
“I wish there was more materializing, because I don’t know what’s happening,” she said.
Going forward, Rabbi Lavitt emphasized the need for collaboration amongst the various affinity groups on campus so that the burden of outreach and support does not fall to one organization. After one of the vandalisms, the Muslim Students Association offered its solidarity to Kehilah through flowers and a handwritten card. Lavitt further stressed the importance of creating a foundation of resilience with a proactive mindset.
Public Safety will be implementing new security measures in the library. These include identification upon entry through OneCard, similar to the Matchbox system, and the addition of patrols to monitor the space. Via email, Director Hill outlined a plan to revise the guest policy, update camera security, and redesign the foyer to assist the flow of guests into and out of the building.
“This is an important issue,” Hill wrote. “The safety of our community is our number one priority.”
Public Safety has also been in contact with the Swarthmore Borough Police to collaborate on matters of campus safety.
“We meet on a monthly basis with the administration, [Director of Public Safety] Mike Hill and Dean of Students Liz Braun … to provide information on working together more effectively,” Chief of Police Brian Craig explained.
Rabbi Lavitt further considered the repercussions of increased security.
“I never want incidents of hate to jeopardize our public spaces … I want the library to continue being a public access space,” he later stressed.
McCabe Librarian Peggy Seiden noted the difficult balance between security and accessibility.
“Libraries value openness of access,” she stated, citing the ideas and intellectualism they represent. Prior to 2000, Seiden explains, McCabe operated under a “door-sitter” policy, which required that visitors have their bags checked upon exit in an effort to deter theft of library materials.
Seiden conducted an informal survey of colleagues at the nearly 80 different liberal arts institutions that make up the Oberlin Group. Of the 35 institutions that responded, a significant number had not yet implemented key card access. Those which had systems of access management only used them for evening or late night entry, so that students, faculty and staff were required to present identification after a particular time in order to gain access. None of the institutions required members to swipe in at all hours.
The majority of the 35 libraries also limited visitor access. Most restricted access to the public after a certain hour, which in most cases was 10 PM. A few, however, closed their doors to visitors as early as 5 or 6 PM.
Seiden raised the possibility of rolling back the end of visitor hours from 10:00 PM to 9:00 PM as one approach to tightening security in McCabe, and suggested that Public Safety patrols help with closing the library.
But regardless of the changes that will be implemented in the library, it will remain an open space. McCabe is a Federal Depository library, so it cannot restrict access to its federal collections to the public.
According to Craig, the person or persons responsible for the hate crimes have not been identified. Seiden notes that the swastika incidents appear to be distinct, suggesting that there may be more than one offender. The perpetrator who has been banned from campus has not been linked to any of the vandalisms.
“I do think that one of the most important things we can do as community members is to pay attention to our surroundings,” Braun concluded. “We need to all take responsibility for educating ourselves about bias. I hope students, staff, and faculty will take advantage of upcoming programming and events where we can gather and learn and grow together.”