Legislation overhauls campus hate crime reporting

Legislation proposed by U.S. Sen. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.) could change the way GW and other colleges and universities across the nation record campus hate crimes.

The 1990 Student Right to Know and Campus Security Act – the law governing campus hate crime reporting – requires institutions of higher education to record as hate crimes murders, rapes or aggravated assaults “motivated by race, religion, sexual orientation and ethnicity.”

Under those classifications, the University Police Department reports no occurrences of hate crimes between 1994 and 1996.

Torricelli’s proposed legislation would expand the categories of crime that could be classified as hate crimes, and include violence motivated by gender- or disability-based discrimination.

Michael Liberman of the Anti-Defamation League said methods of recording hate crime statistics at universities and colleges are lacking despite provisions in the 1990 law that require them to tabulate such incidents.

“There is a substantial amount of denial (about hate crime occurrences),” Liberman said. He said some institutions are lax in recording hate crimes because the statistics may hurt their competitive edge.

But University Police Director Dolores Stafford said GW follows the letter of the law, reporting all crimes the 1990 law requires it to record.

Liberman noted, however, that GW did not provide statistics for a 1996 Department of Justice report that tabulated national hate crime statistics.

“GW did not participate at all,” he said. “Are they taking (the Student Right to Know) law seriously?”

Mike Walker, assistant dean of the Community Learning and Living Center, said the University closely follows the Student Right to Know Act and sends all prospective students campus crime statistics.

But Torricelli’s new Campus Hate Crimes Right to Know Act of 1997 would amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 by placing even more stringent reporting requirements on universities.

“Current law requires colleges and universities to report statistics on crimes that occur on their campuses,” Torricelli said in a speech on the Senate floor Nov. 9. “However, colleges are only required to report those hate crimes that result in murder, rape or aggravated assault.”

Those three violent acts account for only 16 percent of hate crimes, Torricelli said.

Walker said the University’s Student Code of Conduct already provides protection against gender- and disability-motivated violence.

Under the student code, the University forbids violent acts motivated by race, color, religion, sex, national origin, age, disability, veteran status or sexual orientation.

But the Torricelli legislation also would require vandalism, harassment and simple assault – three offenses that encompass a majority of hate crimes – to be reported on campuses.

Although GW never has faced a violent hate crime, some instances of harassment have occurred.

“This is a relatively benign campus,” said Rabbi Gerald Serotta of the Hillel Center, who has worked in the GW community for 16 years.

The diverse nature of the University’s population leads to better understanding of differences and fewer hate crimes, said Michael Baratz, former president of the Jewish Student Leadership Coalition of Hillel.

But in January 1997, faculty members in the English and history departments received literature denouncing the Jewish community, said Kim Moreland, the Columbian School of Arts and Sciences’ associate dean for undergraduate affairs.

And last semester a professor in the Colombian School received an anti-Semitic e-mail message with no return address, Moreland said.

Such acts of harassment caused anxiety among faculty members, she said.

Liberman said the new legislation will “address the nature and the magnitude of the problem” by expanding the acts defined as hate crimes.

“The numbers will provide a measure of accountability,” Liberman said. He said more accurate statistics will lead to more targeted responses to hate crimes.

Walker said GW administrators will interpret the new legislation, currently under committee review in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, to fit GW’s campus.

He said if the bill passed, the University would have to consider incidents of harassment on a case-by-case basis.

“(An act) considered harassment by one person may not be considered harassment by others,” Walker said.

GW will try not to restrict freedom of speech to protect against hate crimes, he added.

“GW is a proponent of free speech, but there is a difference between a challenging dialogue and words that provoke violence and are perceived as threatening,” Walker said.

Liberman said the new legislation would not call for campuses to restrict First Amendment rights, but it would try to distinguish between expressive speech and speech that is meant to cause harm.

“When students do not feel safe based on threats made to them, then we will look into it,” Walker said.

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