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Hoax Allegation Evokes Fallout

Claremont Colleges students on campus after spring break offer a variety of opinions.

March 23, 2004|Joy Buchanan | Times Staff Writer

As students returned Monday to the Claremont Colleges from spring break, Topic A was the police allegation that psychology professor Kerri Dunn had vandalized her own car and spray-painted it with ethnic epithets two weeks ago in a hoax.

"It's very awkward," Jessica Roundy, a senior at Claremont McKenna College said as she walked to a psychology class taught by Dunn until she was placed on leave.

Roundy said many seniors worry that the negative publicity "will discredit their degrees in some way."

Some students at the five undergraduate campuses of the Claremont consortium said that Dunn had betrayed their trust and that they feared people now would ignore genuine complaints about bias. Others said the police allegations showed that campus racism was not as serious as protesters had contended earlier this month after police and the FBI originally portrayed the vandalism as a hate crime.

On Walker Wall, a free speech area on the Pomona College campus, the slogan "Hate Free Campus" was painted two weeks ago in 4-foot-high letters. On Monday, that was partly changed to proclaim: "Hoax Free Campuses." A phrase on the wall that once said "Discover the other within" was altered to say "Discover the liar within."

Dunn, a visiting assistant professor in the psychology department at Claremont McKenna College, has denied she smashed her car windows, slashed tires and spray-painted racial and anti-Semitic epithets on her car. A white woman who publicly spoke of the possibility of converting from Catholicism to Judaism, Dunn was attending a forum on race relations when, she contended, the vandalism occurred. Her attorney did not return phone calls Monday for comment.

Dunn, 39, was placed on paid leave Saturday by the college. On Monday, her classes were taught by Mark Costanzo, chairman of the psychology department, according to school officials.

Diamond More, a senior at Pomona College, said she didn't believe that Dunn had vandalized her car. She said Dunn was a scapegoat for those who did not want to acknowledge racism on campus.

"I think it is just a really easy answer for people who were already skeptical. They're going to use this as evidence that marginalized students cry wolf," said More, a member of the Student Liberation and Action Movement, which organized many of the rallies.

Students at the Office of Black Student Affairs said they feared a backlash as a result of the police allegation.

"I'm not concerned with whether it's a hoax or not," said Adam Briggs, a junior at Pomona College and a member of the Pan-African Student Assn. Briggs said other incidents over the past few months at the Claremont campuses were just as important as the Dunn case, including a cross burning and the writing of a racial epithet on a picture of George Washington Carver, an African American scientist.

But other students said they were not surprised when Dunn became a suspect.

Austin Kiessig and Evan Collins of Claremont-McKenna were on their way to play golf with friends Monday after returning to school. Kiessig, a sophomore, had taped a small flier that said "Anti-Liar" in his dorm room window beneath an American flag and a paper saying "Pro-Diversity Anti-Hate," which had been handed out during the rallies two weeks ago.

Kiessig said he didn't think the campuses were as racist as some students had claimed earlier in the month. The police allegation, he said, "justified all the doubt and disbelief I had before."

Collins, 18, said he thought campus officials should have waited until the police finished their investigation before canceling a day of classes for rallies.

Claremont McKenna President Pamela B. Gann said she had spent much of Monday talking with the faculty. "I have told everyone that we do not know whether anyone will be prosecuted and we don't know whether we'll ever know any more facts. We may never reach closure," Gann said.

The Los Angeles County district attorney's office is weighing whether to charge Dunn with filing a false police report. The FBI also has said she might face more serious federal charges of lying to investigators.

To help address students' questions, Gann said, four administrators were to meet with students in the residence halls Monday night.

Jefferson Huang, dean of students, said he was puzzled that only a handful of students Monday headed to his office, which handles such areas as counseling. Huang said he sensed that students were going through "a mixture of emotions, not sure what to feel right now, with sort of a surreal feeling about the place."

The unusually light turnout at his office on the day students returned from spring break, Huang speculated, could be due to "perspective" that students gained on the vandalism incident during vacation. Also, Huang said, "It could be that students are a little bit psychologically frozen and are not sure what to think right now."

A forum for students, faculty and administrators to discuss the situation was held Monday afternoon at a Pomona College auditorium. It was closed to the media, but afterward Pomona senior Tyler Velten said it had been useful. "People need to voice their opinions on both sides of the table," he said.

Professor Leo Flynn, who teaches government and politics courses at Pomona College, said he was heartened by what he described as reflective discussions. "This forum was more informed and more subdued than some others I've been to," he said.

Meanwhile, some students sought to return to a regular routine. Chrisshonna Grant, a junior at Pomona, said she had tried to avoid discussions about Dunn. "We have homework to do. We have extracurricular activities, then we have this whole emotional burden to deal with," Grant said.

Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein contributed to this report.

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