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As Hate-Crime Concerns Rise, So Does the Threat of Hoaxes

Campuses often provide conditions that can cultivate false reports of racist or anti-gay acts, experts say.

April 20, 2004|Nora Zamichow and Stuart Silverstein | Times Staff Writers

Colleges across the nation have become the stage for hate crime hoaxes that thrust the purported victim into the limelight and twist campuses into turmoil.

At San Francisco State, two black students reported racial epithets scrawled in their dorms. At Northwestern University, a freshman told police that someone grabbed him from behind, held a knife to his neck and uttered an anti-Latino slur. At the College of New Jersey, the treasurer of a gay organization said someone sent threats on his life.

In each instance, police said, the alleged victims turned out to be the perpetrators.

Although such incidents occur everywhere, experts say college campuses can provide the perfect petri dish for cultivating a hoax: a community capable of rallying to correct a perceived injustice.

"A person who is a victim of a hate crime can probably expect to get almost universal sympathy on a college campus. Out in the world at large, that's not necessarily true," said Mark Potok, who has researched hate crime for the Southern Poverty Law Center. "But on a college campus, you are very likely to get the support of the administration, the faculty and virtually all the students. It tends to put you in the limelight very quickly."

Last month, classes halted at the Claremont Colleges as students and faculty rallied in support of Kerri Dunn, a visiting professor of psychology whose car was vandalized and spray-painted with anti-Semitic slurs after a forum denouncing intolerance. A hate crime, Claremont police first said. But a week later, police alleged Dunn did it.

Dunn has denied any wrongdoing. The FBI and the Los Angeles County district attorney's office are investigating.

Campus hoaxers are usually students, experts said.

"A professor is part of the power structure," said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at Cal State San Bernardino. "A professor also has much more to lose."

Motivation varies. Some believe their cause is so worthy that any means of getting attention is justified. For others, it's revenge. Still others are mentally ill, experts say.

In several cases, the perpetrator was attempting to divert attention from a personal problem or cover a mistake.

Sometimes hoaxes are staged for what seem like relatively trivial reasons. A San Francisco State student, Allison Jackson, now 21, reported to police in September that someone wrote "black bitches" on a dorm room door.

Later in the month, after being confronted with a handwriting analysis, Jackson said she faked the incident, according to a campus police report, because she wanted "a roommate change" and housing officials were taking too long to respond.

"I was given the advice that in order for the roommate move to be taken seriously, things needed to occur," Jackson said, according to the report. She wrote on the door, she told police, "because that was the drastic event that was going to get us moved."

Wanted Acceptance

In another San Francisco State incident last September, a black student named Leah Miller, now 19, admitted to scratching "NIGG" on a dorm room door and to writing herself a note with the same epithet. She apologized to police and said she wanted to be accepted by other students and draw attention to what she regarded as racial issues on campus.

"I tried to be part of something," Miller told police.

Another explanation for hoaxes? Immaturity, said Nathaniel Snow, a former student leader at Miami University in Ohio. He offers a special perspective -- Snow, along with a fellow student, was accused and later acquitted in a suspected hoax at the school in 1998.

In that case, authorities found more than 50 fliers with racist and anti-gay messages posted at the campus' Center for Black Culture and Learning. Police found fingerprints on the fliers that matched Snow and another student.

Snow said that he was wrongly accused and that his prints were discovered because he worked at the center. He said the incident might indeed have been a hoax, but not by him.

"We had students whose hormones basically were everywhere," said Snow, 27, now an elementary school teacher. "And for a majority of students, it was their first time really being away from home."

Campuses often are subject to other kinds of flimflam, say experts, such as the case involving a University of Wisconsin sophomore who allegedly staged her own disappearance and was charged April 14 with lying to police.

Whatever the motive, instant celebrity often surrounds purported victims. "Being cast as a hate crime victim creates a shield of immunity -- at least temporarily," Levin said.

Several researchers say the liberal atmosphere at many of the nation's colleges creates an environment ripe for deception.

"There's the preconception that if a charge is made, it's true," said John Perazzo, author of "The Myths that Divide Us."

"One common thread running through many such incidents is the accuser's sense of victimhood."

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