Champagne Ellison, left, a senior at San Jose State University, marches… (Karl Mondon, The Mercury…)
Aaron Miller was surprised and saddened by reports that a black freshman had faced weeks of racial harassment by some of his white roommates in a San Jose State University dorm.
The alleged abuse was poles apart from Miller's own experience as a black student on the diverse campus.
"It was awful to believe that something like that could happen on a campus where I had felt so welcome, loved and supported," said Miller, 20, a junior majoring in political science.
But with three white students charged with hate crimes and a fourth suspended from school, the San Jose State campus has been forced to confront the possibility that racial and ethnic relations may not be as smooth as once thought.
Some black students wonder whether it's safe to stay in dorms.
They and others in the campus community are dumbfounded that the situation apparently went unchecked for weeks. The alleged abuse included blockading the unnamed then-17-year-old in his room, forcing a U-shaped bike lock around his neck, nicknaming him "three-fifths," a reference to a slavery-era constitutional provision that counted blacks as three-fifths of a person, and parading a Confederate flag.
University President Mohammad Qayoumi took personal responsibility for the failure of the campus to stop the alleged abuse earlier.
"By failing to recognize the meaning of a Confederate flag, intervene earlier to stop the abuse, or impose sanctions as soon as the gravity of the behavior became clear, we failed him. I failed him," Qayoumi said in a statement last week.
Qayoumi was not available for an interview.
All of this has occurred on a campus that venerates the 1960s civil rights struggles with an imposing statue of black sprinters and alumni Tommie Smith and John Carlos, depicted at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics with their black-gloved fists raised in protest during the playing of "The Star-Spangled Banner."
The hate crime case joins a list of controversies plaguing the campus recently, including protests over last-minute program cuts (subsequently canceled), plans to reduce the size of the African American studies department, problems with a highly touted online experiment and a call by the campus Academic Senate for an outside review of campus leadership.
But the events at San Jose State are not isolated: Hate crimes, harassment and incidents of white students employing blackface and other racial stereotypes continue to proliferate on campuses despite the nation's growing diversity, according to educators and others.
"Looking at issues of race, diversity and inclusion have become so pat that oftentimes schools and universities are well-meaning but offer little of substance during orientation," said Lecia Brooks, outreach director for the Southern Poverty Law Center. "Sadly, universities like San Jose State tell themselves, 'We have a diverse student body and that means we don't have to take a deeper look at the issues.'"
According to police reports, the alleged harassment began in late August when the freshman was placed in a four-bedroom campus residence with seven white roommates.
In mid-October, the freshman's parents noticed a Confederate flag in the living room of the apartment and a racial epithet written on a dry-erase board; they contacted housing officials who alerted campus police.
The students charged with misdemeanor hate crimes and battery are Logan Beaschler, 18, of Bakersfield, Joseph Bomgardner, 19, of Clovis, and Colin Warren, 18, of Woodacre. All have been suspended. An unidentified minor was also suspended. The three older students surrendered and were released on $15,000 bail. An arraignment was scheduled for Jan. 6, when they are scheduled to enter pleas.
The students, who also placed Nazi symbols and pictures of Adolf Hitler in the apartment, told campus police that the incidents were pranks and practical jokes. Attorneys for the students did not return calls seeking comment.
The president of the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP, the Rev. Jethroe Moore II, called their actions "racially based terrorism" and urged that felony charges be filed.
Prosecutors said that the charges reflect the level of conduct and that, after a meeting explaining the decision, the victim's family is satisfied.
"We believe if we over-charge this case, we may not be able to get justice for the victim, " Deputy Dist. Atty. Erin West said. "We charged the most we thought we could prove. The investigation is ongoing, and should we be presented with additional evidence the charges could change."
West said the freshman, now 18, continues to live in the same dorm with three other students.
Qayoumi announced a number of actions, including retraining residence hall advisors and creating an external task force to examine campus policies and propose reforms.