Death Threats Take Toll on Minority Students
[UNIVERSITY PARK, PA] - At a university that takes pride in its progress regarding diversity issues, it seems to be the case that Penn State (University Park) is still far from completing its mission.
Four student leaders within both the LGBTA (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgendered, and allied) and Black communities received death threats and hate mail during the week following the conclusion of spring semester classes. The students were notified by the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) in Philadelphia and were told that there names, addresses, and a great deal of personal information were posted on a white supremacist website. In order to preserve the safety and the privacy of the students, Voices does not wish to publish the name of the site. Only hours after being notified by the ADL, the same students who were listed on the website received personal hate emails and death threats from an anonymous sender.
According to David Davis, Black Caucus president, "It would appear that the emails and the information posted on the website were a result of a Collegian article in which several student leaders spoke out on student safety."
In his statement, Davis refers to a Daily Collegian article run Monday, April 22 that described student concerns with web confidentiality and Penn State's web directory.
The authorities have apparently found the perpetrator: a seventeen-year-old male from Lodi, NJ. Because he is a minor, his name cannot be released. He was questioned, and upon his admission and apology, was subsequently let go. His case is now being determined by the District Attorney in NJ who is deciding upon the charges, if any.
This is the first of this type of harassment and death threats of LGBT individuals to be made visible at Penn State. According to New Jersey's Division of Criminal Justice's Office of Bias Crime and Community Relations and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, bias crime includes sexual orientation, unlike Pennsylvania's hate crime legislation which does not address crimes based on sexual orientation.
Currently, House Bill 1493, which would also include crimes based on sexual orientation punishable by law, is being held up in the judiciary committee of the PA House of Representatives.
Jennifer Storm, recent alumna, former political co-director of Lambda Student Alliance, and recipient of one of the death threats, urges people to write their representatives and encourage them to support the legislation. "[It] needs to be released and moved up for a vote."Jennifer Storm was the political co-director of Lambda Student Alliance (LSA), an LGBT student rights group, at the time she received an email threat. Storm said that according to Terrell Jones, Penn State's Vice-Provost for Educational Equity, last semester there appeared to be a disproportionate amount of incidents against LGBT individuals reported. Now that Penn State has decided to collect its own data on hate crimes, they learned that 70% of last semester's reported incidents were reported by members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgendered community.
"That information would've been. useful for LSA to have so we could've had a heads up on what was going on and educate the community. We definitely would've upped our educational efforts," Storm said, because she says that many times, there is no voice within the LGBT community because of hate and discrimination. At Penn State, LSA can serve as that voice.
Storm recognized House Bill 1493 as "a pivotal piece in this case. If we had protection in Pennsylvania, we would be able to try this case at a much larger penalty, but now we're stuck. If we [LGBT community] have 70% [of on campus harassment] reported, there's a lot more that goes unreported. If we had this we could. at least hold people accountable. We couldn't stop it but we could at least use it as an outlet to hold people accountable."
According to Hayes, "The authorities have been very reluctant with giving information even to the victims. It's been a matter of the victims calling the authorities to be given any sort of update, whereas you would think it would be vice-versa. "
Storm said that as a victim, she has not received information. "We haven't really been informed about what has been going on too much, which is one of my chief complaints."
Unfortunately, University Police Chief Tom Harmon was unable to be reached for comment.
As far as Penn State's response, Hayes feels that it has not been substantial. "I think this shows once again the lack of respect that Penn State has for its students and the administration's irresponsibility, and again it falls on current students and recent alumni to make any sort of change."
Hayes refers to the email death threats to Black student leaders that escalated in Spring 2001 and which culminated in a week-long sit-in at Penn State's student union building.
"There's a relationship between these death threats and hate mail with the ones from last spring in that the contentious climate in the area is so prevalent, and people feel safe enough to send hate mail to Penn State minority students because they know the university and the local authorities won't do anything about it," Hayes said.
Black Caucus became involved after being approached by those who received the emails when it was discovered that Penn State's service to report hate was temporarily out of commission. Earlier this year, the GyeNyame joint student-administration committee "proposed that a centralized location to report hate be formed to help address students who are victims of hate crimes," said Davis.
"To our dismay, students have once again been victimized and to this date, there remains no effective protocol for the victims of hate crimes," Davis said.
Davis and Hayes are in agreement with the fact that Penn State needs to do more for its students. Said Hayes, "The most recent hate mail shows that the safe and welcoming environment that Penn State claims to have is nonexistent for minority students. People feel comfortable terrorizing students."
The Black Caucus secretary also worries for incoming first-year students. "I would tell an incoming minority freshman that there's a real threat of discrimination and prejudice on Penn State's campus - as well as within the State College community - and not to be fooled by Penn State's rhetoric."