Hundreds of students at the Claremont Colleges marched in protest and administrators canceled classes at five of the system's campuses Wednesday after vandals attacked a visiting professor's car and painted it with ethnic slurs.
The incident, which police classified as a hate crime, apparently occurred as the professor was speaking at a forum about racial intolerance at Claremont McKenna College on Tuesday night.
Vandals smashed the car's windshield, slashed all four tires, stole more than $1,700 worth of personal property and covered the car with black spray paint, according to police.
On Wednesday, more than 500 students and faculty members held teach-ins across the system's campuses, and some said they feared the colleges were experiencing a series of hate crimes.
"It cannot be passed off as just an attack of violence," said Jaqueline Dubois, a student organizer. "I think people are scared."
The attack is the latest in a string of incidents. Earlier this year, four students stole an 11-foot cross from an art class and set it afire. The next month, a student discovered a racial slur written on a picture of George Washington Carver, a black agricultural scientist.
College administrators have offered a $10,000 reward for information leading to the car vandals. A spokeswoman for the FBI said federal agents were helping Claremont police with the investigation.
"This is one of the most serious incidents that I've experienced here in Claremont in my last 26 years," Claremont Police Lt. Stan Vanhorn said. "The car had been viciously vandalized."
The owner, professor Kerri Dunn, has taught social psychology and introductory psychology at Claremont McKenna College for two years. Dunn said she had been outspoken in her classes on the issue of racial intolerance, and she suspected that the vandalism might have been committed by one of her students or a friend of the student.
"I definitely believe I was targeted. I was speaking out, and one of the things they wrote on my car was 'shut up,' " Dunn said. The instructor said she was raised Catholic and had been converting to Judaism, and that one of the slurs on her car was anti-Semitic.
"How else would they believe I was Jewish unless they were in my class?" she asked.
Dunn said the attack might have been prompted by her comments in class Monday, when she urged students to speak out against earlier racial incidents. "I kind of got on a soapbox and asked what was wrong with them," Dunn said.
College administrators who canceled classes said the vandalism required a strong response.
"We have absolutely zero tolerance for any hate crime," said Pamela Gann, president of Claremont McKenna. "This is an affront not only to the faculty member, but to the whole community, because higher education institutions stand for rational discourse."
Gatherings were held throughout the day Wednesday, including a nighttime rally that attracted hundreds. At one gathering, civil rights attorney Connie Rice said some thought the college shouldn't have canceled classes.
"While some think it's an overreaction, I don't," Rice said. "The community ended the terror by saying, 'Not here.' That's what you've done."
In January, four students stole a student's cross sculpture from Pomona College and burned it at Harvey Mudd College. They turned themselves in and said the cross-burning was not racially motivated. School officials did not contact the Claremont Police Department because they didn't consider it a hate crime.
Students later protested the administration's handling of the incident.
The four students were placed on disciplinary probation, banned from intercollegiate athletics for one year and required to complete 100 hours of community service, said Randy Ringen, spokesman for Harvey Mudd. They also agreed to compensate the artist and write an apology to the college community and the custodial staff.
In February, a student discovered a racial slur written on a picture of scientist Carver hanging in a dorm at Claremont McKenna. School officials determined that the act was not a hate crime because it did not target an individual. They did notify police, but police did not file a report.
Also in February, Clark Lee, a student at Claremont McKenna, said he and others reported a student group that required participants to take a photo with at least 10 Asians as a condition of membership in the group.
In response to some of these incidents, Claremont McKenna sponsored a panel discussion about free speech, hate speech and hate crimes Tuesday night. Dunn spoke at the forum, then went to her office to grade papers. When she returned to her car, she discovered the vandalism.
Several students said canceling classes and holding rallies were appropriate responses to the most recent incident.
"We're just really thankful for everyone uniting for this and showing solidarity," said Lee, who is from Taiwan. "Students are usually apathetic, but when things actually hit home, they hit hard."