As GW investigates swastika vandalism, student leaders scrutinize response

Media Credit: Katie Causey | Hatchet Staff Photographer

Students living in International House are concerned for their safety after they found three swastikas drawn on walls.

Updated: March 2, 2015 at 1:11 p.m.

Members of GW’s Jewish community said they are concerned for their safety in light of an investigation into vandalism in International House, where three swastikas were drawn on walls.

As the community grapples with the report of the symbol drawn in the residence hall’s lobby, some student leaders say GW is not doing enough to address the case. Many are calling for campus police officers to receive more training to help them better handle cases of intolerance. The University is not investigating the incident as a hate crime.

Rachel Schwartzman, a resident in the hall, said the University was “not treating the students as adults” or responding to their concerns quickly. Schwartzman, who is a member of the historically Jewish sorority Alpha Epsilon Phi, which has members housed on a floor in the building, said officials did not formally acknowledge the vandalism until a meeting with residents on Wednesday – four days after the initial report.

That, she said, made her and other residents feel like the incident was being “swept under the rug.” Students had to ask their parents to call the University Police Department because reports about the anti-Semitic symbols were not initially taken seriously, she said.

“It’s a classic GW effort in trying to maintain a good reputation for incoming students rather than caring about their students that are currently here,” Schwartzman said.

The three swastikas were between one foot and two-and-a-half feet wide each, Schwartzman said. They looked like they were drawn with a pen.

University spokeswoman Maralee Csellar said the University is investigating the incident as a vandalism case rather than a person-on-group hate crime because officials do not suspect that the act targeted an individual. GW defines a hate crime as any criminal offense, including “intimidation, vandalism, larceny, simple assault or other bodily injury,” that was “motivated by the offender’s bias.”

About 3,000 students on campus are Jewish, according to the international Hillel organization’s website. Two sororities and one fraternity with members living in International House are historically Jewish. Six other chapters also house members in the building.

Senior Max Cardin, an officer of L’Chaim Jewish Student Group, said he wants the University to issue an apology for not addressing the incident more publicly and quickly.

“We get different emails and alerts for sexual violence on campus,” Cardin said. “With acts of anti-Semitism, the University tries to dispose of this as quietly as possible.”

Ten hate crimes have been reported to GW since 2010, according to the University’s annual security report. The most recent religion-based hate crimes were reported in 2012: one instance of vandalism and one simple assault. The data for 2014 has not yet been released.

When officials investigated a report that swastikas had been drawn on a Thurston Hall room door in 2007, they eventually found out that the student who lived there had actually drawn them herself.

Schwartzman said a University security official did not know that swastikas have an anti-Semitic connotation when speaking to parents — a report echoed in the Washington Post.

Csellar declined to comment on whether campus police officers would receive more training in how to deal with a hate crime investigation or whether the University would alter the trainings. She said in a statement that officers receive “anti-bias based police training,” but declined to provide details about what they specifically learn.

The Jewish Student Association is trying to make sure that Jewish students feel safe on campus, the group’s president, Kiana Davis, said. She said she wants the University to better train UPD officers in diversity and hate crime cases.

“We hope students will use this incident to have constructive dialogue about what it means to be Americans, to be Jews and to be Colonials,” Davis said.

Darrell Darnell, GW’s senior associate vice president for safety and security, and Dean of Student Affairs Peter Konwerski said in an email sent Friday afternoon to International House residents and their parents that security in the hall had increased to 24/7 monitoring. They added that the “offensive drawings” had been removed.

“This abhorrent behavior is inexcusable and will not be tolerated in our community. The University does not condone images or language that attack any group,” the email read. “Such acts do not represent the sentiments of GW’s student body.”

Faye Moskowitz, an English professor who teaches Jewish American literature courses, said her primary concern is whether the University is treating the vandalism as a threat to students. She said she hopes the case is isolated and that it is only the act of one student, rather than a hate group.

“I want everyone to feel safe from threats, and I see the swastikas as threats,” Moskowitz said.

GW Hillel’s assistant director, Adena Kirstein, said the vandalism case shows why it’s important to build a tolerant atmosphere on campus.

“There are always further opportunities to educate one another, grow as a community and work toward a greater good on campus,” Kirstein said.

Kirstein added that on-campus Hillel leaders are in “constant contact” with the University, which she said has been receptive to “concerns or questions when it comes to deeply challenging issues such as these.”

Rabbi Yudi Steiner, who leads Chabad at GW, another Jewish community group, said he didn’t believe there was cause for alarm. He said the incident could help strengthen and bring together Jewish students.

“To be scared, to feel unsafe, or to start worrying about what will we see next is an overreaction and probably a misinterpretation of what happened,” Steiner said. “This is someone being stupid.”

But Steiner added that the University should take public action because “the line between allowing [the vandalism] to go unanswered and setting the stage for it to be accepted is very thin.”

“Step one is coming openly and telling people this is what happened and that this is beyond unacceptable,” Steiner said.

This post was updated to reflect the following correction:
The Hatchet incorrectly identified Max Cardin as an officer of GW Hillel. He is actually an officer of L’Chaim Jewish Student Group. We regret this error. The post was also updated to include more quotes from Rabbi Yudi Steiner.

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