Students

Timing of U. of Iowa’s Alert to Students of a Possible Hate Crime Fuels Racial Tensions

May 05, 2016

The Iowa City Police Department received a report on Monday night from a black University of Iowa student who said he had been attacked in a potential hate crime outside an off-campus bar. Three days later the university sent students a campus-crime alert by email and text.

That response followed standard crime-alert protocol, but it incited fierce criticism from students who viewed the response as unacceptably delayed. Those students say the slow-arriving alert highlighted greater problems of race relations and inclusion on a campus where some African-American students have already said they feel misunderstood.

"You feel like you don’t belong here sometimes," said Jaquarius Daniels, a freshman. Ms. Daniels said that little things, like when white classmates refuse to share notes after class, already make her feel excluded as a black woman. The lack of notice about an assault near the campus has heightened that sense, she said.

On Monday, Marcus Owens, a 19-year-old freshman, told the Iowa City Police Department he had been beaten by three white men on Saturday night. When a Chicago-area news station reported about the student, who is from a Chicago suburb, on Tuesday night, Iowa students took to Twitter, using the hashtag #ExplainIowa to express their discontent with the university for not notifying them sooner.

The university first acknowledged the incident on Tuesday around midnight.

"UI officials first learned of the incident when called by a Chicago television station and are working to learn more," the university tweeted.

The student first tried to report the incident to the University of Iowa police on Monday night, but he was redirected to the Iowa City police because the assault had happened off-campus. For that reason, university administrators were unaware of Saturday night’s events until later, said Jeneane Beck, assistant vice president for external relations.

University officers directed the student to the city police so he wouldn’t have to repeat his story, wrote the university’s president, J. Bruce Harreld, in a letter to the campus. Mr. Harreld added that he realizes the policy is a "failure in current UI protocol" and will work to improve how students report crimes to both the campus and the city police.

On Wednesday morning Iowa sent out a crime alert about the incident. David A. Visin, the university’s associate police director, said in an email that the university did not have enough information about the incident to issue an alert before then.

As concerns over racial-climate issues roil campuses nationwide, other institutions have come under fire for issuing campus alerts with insufficient information. At Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge, for example, a campus-crime alert describing a potential suspect as a "black male wearing a dark hoodie" sparked student protests for its vague and potentially polarizing language.

The University of Iowa regularly sends alerts about aggravated assaults, robberies, and sexual assaults that occur on or immediately near the campus, in compliance with the federal crime-reporting law known as the Clery Act, said Mr. Visin, who is also Iowa’s Clery compliance coordinator.

S. Daniel Carter, a campus-security consultant and campus-safety advocate, said under the timely warning requirement of the Clery Act, universities are required to report only incidents that happen on their campuses, remote campus properties, or areas immediately accessible to the campus.

Some campuses may send timely warnings for off-campus incidents, but those alerts are at the university’s discretion and often depend on how much information is available, Mr. Carter said.

"If it occurred at a whole off-campus location, there is no statutory or regulatory requirement," Mr. Carter said. "It is a community expectation, not a requirement of the law."

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Still, while the university was not legally required to send an alert, for some students the email came too late. The incident indicates a need for different community expectations when reporting off-campus incidents, they said.

Ms. Daniels said Iowa’s delayed response had made it seem as if the university wasn’t looking out for minority students.

From alerts about free vaccines to predator warnings, Ms. Daniels said, the university is always keeping students updated about something. Finding out about a black student’s assault through a TV station’s report rubbed her the wrong way.

John Kuster, a junior studying political science and journalism, said Iowa is diligent with alerts. Students are used to waking up to alerts about incidents that happened the night before, Mr. Kuster said. Their frustrations in this case come from the university’s uncharacteristic lack of immediacy, he said.

Some students are also upset with the racial tone of the conversation, Mr. Kuster said.

"A story like this really gets big because it’s a minority," Mr. Kuster said. "Let’s be honest. If the kid was white, and he was beat by three white kids, do you think it would be a big deal?"

Mr. Kuster said he thinks the university was taking extra time to gather information about the hate-crime investigation, not deliberately ignoring the incident. Still, he said, the university should have alerted students earlier.

"They could have sent out an email describing what happened and just [saying], More information coming later," Mr. Kuster said.

Even if details were sparse, Ms. Daniels said, an earlier alert would have made minority students feel as if the university was there for them.

Instead, students heard silence on the university’s end until they demanded more information on Twitter.

"We’re already a minority here. Let’s just be realistic. We don’t take up the whole school," Ms. Daniels said. "It just makes us feel like we’re not appreciated if you just can’t inform us on one situation."

Fernanda Zamudio-Suaréz is a web writer. Follow her on Twitter @FernandaZamudio, or email her at fzamudiosuarez@chronicle.com.