SUNY creates programs to battle hate crime

The questionable racial-motivated shootings of five African-American men in Tulsa, Okla., over Easter weekend have left a curious question at hand: Is racially motivated violence a problem on Oswego State’s campus?

“Nothing like that has actually happened [at Oswego State] where violence has occurred to that degree,” Oswego State Police Chief Cynthia Adam said. “It is more frequent that we have cases of bias-related graffiti.”

According to Oswego State’s University Police 2010 Security and Fire Report, 15 bias-related offenses occurred on Oswego State grounds between 2008 and 2010. Of those offenses were destruction or damage to property, and two were intimidation. At Oswego State, a school of about 7,400 undergraduate students, 1,100 post-graduate students and about 250 academic staff members, the total number of offenses between 2008 and 2010 occurred in less than 1 percent of the entire academic population.

Adam said it is important to address all types of bias-related crimes constructively.

“We have zero tolerance for hate crimes and violence-related issues,” Adam said. “As a campus community, we value diversity. Every student, visitor, faculty and staff member needs to feel accepted and safe on this campus.”

Bias-related crimes are dealt with in three different ways at Oswego State: through the criminal justice system, through the local district attorney; redress through the Office of Judicial Affairs and the Dean’s office, or through the Title IX investigator on campus. Redress through the office of judicial affairs and the Dean’s office is educational in nature. It attempts to have the offender or suspect learn a deeper understanding of his or her actions. Consequences may involve community service, prevention education and even suspension.

Adam said especially in an academic setting, it is important to talk about racism, sexism, homophobia and other biases or preconceived notions people might carry with them.

“People need to get out of their comfort zones and address these issues in a direct way,” Adam said. “We need to have proactive, educational conversations so that people can form opinions and understand that we really are all more alike than we are different.”

“It is important to note that many hate crimes and bias-related offenses go unreported,” Adam said. “Police departments are only made aware of a fraction of offenses that occur, she said, but with education, people are more likely to report hate crimes or bias-related incidents. “People become more aware of their rights and thus can understand when something is wrong or when someone is violating a policy. The more incidents reported, the better chance we have of providing services to victims and identifying issues.”

Chief Ann Burns, of SUNY Fredonia University Police Department, collaboratively developed a program, Silent Witness, which hopes to increase reporting of bias-related incidents. SUNY Fredonia University Police Department’s 2008-10 Crime Statistics Report showed no hate crimes or bias-related offenses were reported between 2008 and 2010.

“It’s those terrible, hurtful, painful incidences of homophobic and racist comments or actions which are happening on campus that are not being reported,” Burns said. “Silent Witness makes it easier and more comfortable for a victim to report these kinds of incidents.”

The Silent Witness Program, which was given a top priority by SUNY Fredonia’s president, changes the crime reporting form to include incidents that do not rise to the level of a crime but still need to be addressed. Any form turned in is reviewed by University Police, and if it is determined that a crime has not occurred, the Title IX coordinator and Office of Judicial Affairs will investigate the incident and follow up with the victim.

“We thought we really needed to get at the heart of the matter—feelings. The damage someone’s words can cause a person is intolerable,” Burns said. “Silent Witness allows you to report anything that’s meaningful to you.”

Since Silent Witness was enacted in January, one student has used it to address a bias-related incident where a Student Association representative used Facebook to express hurtful, demeaning and degrading feelings toward another on-campus organization. After thorough investigation, University Police determined this was a case of free speech, not a crime. A representative from Judicial Affairs, the Title IX coordinator and SUNY Fredonia’s vice president spoke with the offenders to let them know that bias-related behavior will not be tolerated on campus.

Fredonia also participates in other diversity-learning initiatives, including “Dialogues on Diversity,” which in 2012 featured Dr. Maura Cullen, a diversity educator. All students received a copy of her book, “35 Dumb Things Well-Intended People Say: Surprising Things We Say that Widen the Diversity Gap,” a guide to becoming more effective in communication with others and “diversity-smart.”

“Sticks and stones can break my bones but words can scar a lifetime,” Cullen said. “Say what you mean, mean what you say and don’t say it mean.”