Sunday, September 23, 2018
Education

USF president calls for 'healing, civility and respect' after election-related threats on campus

TAMPA — The writing on the Science Center looked faded, like someone had tried to scrub it away. But the words were still clear: "Trump 2016, MAGA, you gotta go back."

Elsewhere on the University of South Florida campus, racist threats scrawled on the wall of a residence hall vowed death if Hillary Clinton won the presidential election.

USF is one of many universities dealing with the fallout of a contentious, bitter election from which Donald Trump emerged president-elect. Some students have celebrated while others have mourned. More than two dozen have sought solace in the USF Office of Multicultural Affairs, which posted on Facebook that it was offering "a space to breathe, process, grieve, laugh, cry, or sit silently with those that value inclusion."

While USF police were investigating the threats, president Judy Genshaft sent a university-wide email on Thursday expressing her hope for healing, civility and respect for diversity.

"Whether or not you agreed with the outcome, the University of South Florida System remains a special place where respectful expression of one's beliefs is encouraged," Genshaft wrote.

Late Tuesday afternoon, as voters were still casting their ballots, USF Police got a call from Castor Hall.

Graffiti written with a dry-erase marker said that if Clinton won the election, certain students would die, according to police spokeswoman Renna Reddick. Some students also found notes under their doors with "racial undertones," repeating a similar message and identifying students by name.

Reddick said police cannot release specifics about the threats while the investigation is ongoing.

On Wednesday, the housing community offered support services and hosted a three-hour forum, asking the 40 or so students in attendance to come forward if they had any information. Investigators followed up with interviews. No suspects have been identified, but police have increased patrolling in the area.

"It's natural and it's understandable that they do have fears and concerns, which is one of the reasons we held the forum for them," Reddick said. She said police also encouraged students to keep reporting troubling incidents and to use campus resources.

USF isn't treating the graffiti as a hate crime, she said, since it was erasable and thus wouldn't qualify as criminal mischief.

But the words run counter to USF's values, said Ana Hernandez, assistant vice president of housing and residential education.

"We want to create a safe and welcoming environment where students are successful, and incidents like this are distracting … and not acceptable," Hernandez said.

Post-election tension has taken hold at colleges across the country in the form of racist slurs, vandalism, students in blackface and potential hate crimes. Fliers in Texas State University bathrooms celebrated Trump's victory and declared it "time to organize tar and feather vigilante squads and go arrest and torture those deviant university leaders spouting off that diversity garbage." Minority students have reported being spat on, and a woman wearing a hijab reported being attacked at San Jose State University. Black University of Pennsylvania freshmen were added to a GroupMe account with racist, violent messages, including images of lynching with the caption, "I love America."

Some students who supported Trump said they, too, faced hostility because of the election, such as when a Bridgewater State University College Republicans poster was vandalized to say "RACISTS!"

In recent days, university leaders around the U.S. have sent messages to students similar to Genshaft's, underscoring a commitment to inclusion. Some large universities have boosted counseling services and held large meetings for students to reflect on the election.

At USF, the pro-Trump graffiti on the Science Center wasn't reported to university officials, but it caught the attention of two doctoral students.

Suzanne Young had already arrived at a meeting in the building when her friend walked in and showed her a photo of the wall, its surface marred with sloppy graffiti.

"Yeah, we've got to go clean that up," Young said, her post-election despondency turning into anger.

"Being a woman and being a scientist, being a person of mixed race, it hits really personally and it hits really hard," she said. "There's so much racism and bigotry behind his campaign and that's what I don't accept. And it's so hard to see that on a university campus where we're supposed to be spreading ideas of acceptance and tolerance and pursuit of knowledge."

The two scientists grabbed their lab brushes and detergent and scrubbed until the words were gone.

Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321. Follow @clairemcneill.

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