On Saturday, Dean Bolton sent out an all-campus e-mail to inform the community of a hate crime reported by a student. Approximately two weeks ago, a magnet that read “Real Men Love Jesus” was stolen from a student’s car while it was parked on Park Street. The student then replaced the magnet with a bumper sticker bearing the same message. On Thursday, the student discovered that the bumper sticker had also been vandalized when the car was parked in the Thompson Chapel Lot. Someone tore off the right half of the bumper sticker from the car so that it just read “Real Men.”
The student notified Campus Safety and Security of the vandalism via e-mail, and after communicating with the student, Security involved the Williamstown Police Department (WPD) in the investigation. A report of a hate crime was then immediately filed with the WPD. The vandalism has been classified as a hate crime due to the bumper sticker’s religious message. The Massachusetts Hate Crimes Reporting Act defines a hate crime as “any criminal act coupled with overt actions motivated by bigotry and bias including, but not limited to, a threatened, attempted or completed overt act motivated at least in part by racial, religious, ethnic, handicap, gender or sexual orientation prejudice, or which otherwise deprives any person of his constitutional rights …”
Given the nature of the crime, Security has little information that might lead to the apprehension of the criminal. “[With regard to] the investigation, because of where [the vandalism] was and what actually happened, we are pretty much waiting for a witness to come forward,” said Dave Boyer, director of Security. “There isn’t a whole lot that we can do. We’re always willing to put in effort, but it needs to be directed somewhere. At this point, we’re looking for more information. We didn’t necessarily alter our patrols. We check Thompson Chapel on a routine basis, but we didn’t check it more. We didn’t do anything other than what is normal, though everyone’s level of awareness was heightened.”
Bias Incident Reporting
The administration is required to report the occurrence of hate crimes publicly, and this hate crime will be reported in the annual Cleary report. In light of the hate crime in November and the vandalism in April, the most recent edition of the Cleary report, which was released in an all-campus e-mail sent by Boyer on Oct. 1, included a new section regarding bias incident reporting. “[We were] just putting [bias incident reporting] out there because we didn’t want it to feel like it’s trying to be buried under other information,” said Steve Klass, vice president for campus life.
“I don’t know if that’s the prose that we would use forever, but we wanted to put something in there that would give explicit guidance to the community about how to report incidents and how they’ve been treated,” Bolton added. Following the November hate crime, the administration formed a task force to look into and suggest changes to College policy on bias incident reporting. The committee is expected to release a report within the month regarding future protocol for bias incident reporting, according to Klass.
Security responded to the student targeted by the vandalism on Thursday immediately after receiving the e-mail, but students were not notified of the crime until Saturday afternoon because the administration was concerned with protecting the victim’s anonymity and considering his wishes. “We weren’t going to be in touch with the community until obviously we had talked to the student more about both what had happened and what he wanted to see happen going forward,” Bolton said. “We were planning to communicate with the community at large, but as you put together those communications … you want to make sure that you’re communicating a level of detail that’s helpful to the community in understanding what’s happened, but also isn’t more detailed than the person who experienced the crime is comfortable with.”
While the administration responded to the hate crime in November and April’s homophobic slur with similar e-mails detailing the crimes, Klass stressed that this is not necessarily standard protocol for similar occurrences. “While there is consistency to the reasons we would want to send something out, you really have to go case by case and person by person as to how you craft [an all-campus] message and how you send it,” he said. “You don’t want to move too quickly because you don’t want to send out information that you later have to retract.”
After communicating with students involved in several Christian organizations on campus, including Williams Catholic and the Williams Christian Fellowship (WCF), Bolton expressed a desire to allow affected students to respond to the event organically. “The students were telling us that they didn’t want a big forum about this. We are taking their leadership on this,” she said. “We’re trying to have the Chaplains’ Office be the central place through which people give us a sense of what kind of gathering or response would be most helpful. They’re trying to find that out, and the institutional response will be to do the thing that people want to happen. We haven’t yet gotten a strong sense of what people want to have happen. There are some groups that are meeting in smaller groups to talk about it, and we’ve been following that guidance.”
The Chaplains’ Office has been communicating with several Christian groups on campus to determine how the community will respond to the acts. Following Bolton’s e-mail, Chaplain to the College Rick Spalding sent e-mails to Williams Catholic and to WCF expressing support and solidarity. Jewish Chaplain Robert Scherr also sent an e-mail to the Williams College Jewish Association expressing his hope that the Jewish community would stand in solidarity with the Christian community, and Muslim Chaplain Bilal Ansari addressed the incident in his Storytime on Sunday evening.
According to Spalding, while Williams Catholic, WCF and the Feast have all discussed the hate crime within their respective organizations, a larger forum or all-campus event is not currently being planned. “It’s true of all the groups that they have a variety of different perspectives on what happened,” Spalding said. “My sense is that there’s both a diversity of perspectives on what happened and also an emerging consensus that an appropriate response is [a] conversation rather than a mobilization … a gathering, an event, something like that. What I’m hearing is that we need to keep talking about this stuff, but we don’t need to have a rally or an open mic time. I think that imposing that would be seen by many, perhaps most, as an administrative-heavy response.”
WCF staff worker Caleb Miaw ’11 believes that the incident was an isolated act that was not directly threatening to the Christian community. “While we can’t speak for all Christian students, either at Williams or in WCF, our general sense after initial conversations together is that the recent vandalism does not seem to be a malicious or directed attack at our particular community of faith, simply a poorly considered response to an individual’s particular expression of faith,” Miaw said. “We regret that incidents such as these continue to occur at Williams and share the belief that all students … should feel safe and welcome to express themselves as they choose.”
Emily Ciavarella ’13, president of Williams Catholic, expressed a similar sentiment. “The consensus seems to be: [The crime] was a stupid act of vandalism, and while it does appear that someone is hostile to Christianity on campus, no Christian I’ve talked to feels unsafe or threatened. I think there should be a discussion about how religious belief is treated at Williams intellectually and academically.”
Spalding is optimistic that the incident might encourage a discussion of the experiences of students of faith on campus. “When something like this happens, we roll up our sleeves and get to work thinking about it together,” he said. “We don’t all come out in the same place, but I rejoice in the quality of trust and respect which in this case is grounded in our religious pluralism as a secular institution that enables us to have those conversations. We’re lucky to live in a community where when something important happens, we can all get together and talk about it.”
Klass indicated that whatever form it takes, the response to the incident will likely be ongoing. “There’s room for things to be thought about and discussed in a meaningful way,” he said. “In terms of how people process this and heal, I think you have to wait to see where the grass gets beaten down before you put down the sidewalk.”