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At Oberlin College, spate of hate incidents spurs reflection

March 06, 2013|By Marisa Gerber
  • Tom Weston, lay leader at First United Methodist Church in Oberlin, Ohio, was among those disturbed by the recent racial incidents reported at Oberlin College.
Tom Weston, lay leader at First United Methodist Church in Oberlin, Ohio,… (Tony Dejak / Associated…)

Oberlin College in Ohio has long been lauded as a bastion of social justice. In 1835 it became one of the first colleges in the country to admit black students. Two years later, the liberal arts college enrolled female students -- again, well ahead of most of the country.

But this year a series of disturbing incidents has left the college on edge, and on Monday school officials canceled classes amid reports that someone was spotted roaming the campus dressed in robes of the Ku Klux Klan.

Junior Zach Pekarsky told the Los Angeles Times that tensions ran high early in the week on the campus, located 35 miles southwest of Cleveland.

“A lot of people were very actively concerned for their safety, physically,” Pekarsky said, adding that most students he spoke with were happy classes were canceled. “It emphasized the gravity of it.”

The news rattled a campus still rattled by a recent slew of racist, anti-gay and anti-Semitic incidents. The Oberlin Review, the school’s newspaper, posted a list of six other events that happened on campus in February and included a warning: “This article includes original language used in hate speech.”

On Feb. 16, students found a “Whites only” note tacked above a water fountain. Eleven days later, a custodian had to scrub a swastika from the window of a lecture hall.

A statement put out Monday by the school’s president, Marvin Krislov, and three of its deans, urged students, faculty and staff to use the day off -- “a day of solidarity,” as they called it -- to reflect on and engage in conversation about the “hate-related incidents on campus.”

The officials called the cancellation a way to make “a strong statement about the values that we cherish here at Oberlin: inclusion, respect for others, and a strong and abiding faith in the worth of every individual.”

Pekarsky, a former leader of the college’s Jewish campus organization Hillel, who spoke at a convocation Monday, said this week’s news conjured unsettling memories from last month.

“It was a very existentially scary moment,” he said of the painting of a swastika on a window not far from his dorm. “I think to see it is to be reminded that maybe, just maybe … no matter how accepted Jews feel  in society, it’s a reminder. There’s this doubt.”

The mood on campus did change after Monday's events, he said.

“There’s been, I think, a pretty positive atmosphere of people really coming together and supporting each other,” he said. “And people asking really hard questions about what does solidarity really mean.”

Oberlin spokesman Scott Wargo told The Times that he thought the discussion and events had been quite productive and that things were “getting back on track” by Tuesday.

Asked about claims reported by some local newspapers that police hadn’t found anyone dressed as a Klansman, but found a pedestrian wrapped in a blanket, Wargo declined to comment, citing the ongoing investigation.

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marisa.gerber@latimes.com

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