Shortly after midnight on Saturday night, a Swarthmore student and a friend of his from the University of Pennsylvania were attacked by a group of at least six teenagers. The two students were hospitalized overnight, though neither student was gravely injured.
The college administration’s response to the incident has received criticism from the campus community for being delayed and incomplete, and the possibility that the attack was motivated by homophobia is especially troubling to some students given the upcoming Genderfuck party.
The two male students were returning from a party where each had “drunk a little bit,” according to the Swarthmore student. He told the Gazette that he is “sort of involved” with the visiting student, and that the two were openly showing affection toward one another while walking across campus.
As they reached Mertz Field, a group of “high school kids” came up to them and asked the students for alcohol. At least five males and one female approached them, though the students were unsure of how many there were, and were not able to provide details on their appearance.
The Swarthmore student said that he asked them three questions in response to their request for alcohol: “Are you high schoolers?”, “Are you ville rats?” and “Are you underage?”
When the group responded affirmatively to all three questions, he said he wouldn’t give them any alcohol. One of the group then struck the Swarthmore student.
“Sort of out of nowhere, one of them hit me in the head and I went down,” he said. He was then hit in the jaw repeatedly.
His UPenn friend was also knocked down. The teenagers “kicked him and stomped him in the head and neck.”
After the teenagers left, the students were able to get to Worth Health Center. The Worth staff informed Public Safety of the incident at 12:30 am, according to Director of Public Safety Owen Redgrave.
Officers were dispatched immediately, and Swarthmore Police were also informed. Both arrived to the area around Mertz Field and Magill Walk within minutes.
A search of campus proved fruitless. The two students told the police that they did not think they would be able to identify the perpetrators if they were found.
Meanwhile, other officers took statements from the two students and brought them to Springfield Hospital, where they received x-rays and CT scans. After staying in the hospital overnight, the students were brought back to campus.
Rafael Zapata, Assistant Dean and Director of the Intercultural Center, was on call for the weekend. Zapata told the Gazette he received a call on Sunday morning about the events and contacted the Swarthmore student, leaving him a voicemail on his cell phone and following up with an email “offering support.”
The Swarthmore student met with Zapata on Monday morning to discuss the incident. At this point, the administration became aware of the possible connection of the incident to the students’ sexual orientation.
The student had not discussed this aspect of the incident with neither Public Safety nor the Swarthmore Police before that point. Chief of Police Brian Craig did not know about this connection before the Gazette spoke with him on Tuesday morning.
The deans discussed the incident Monday afternoon, and the student met with Dean of Students Liz Braun on Monday evening. Braun said that the primary goal of the Dean’s Office in this kind of situation is “supporting the student in what they need.” The student said that he felt he did receive the administration’s support.
“In general,” he said, “it was handled pretty well” by all involved.
Both he and his friend “are on the same page, in that we’re really tired and just want to stop thinking about it,” he said.
The Swarthmore Police are now taking the lead in the investigation into the incident, with support from Public Safety.
“At this point,” Redgrave wrote in an email, “we have very few leads.”
The police’s main strategy at this point is to “listen for any talk amongst high school students about this,” according to Craig, and to wait and see if any information turns up.
“Sometimes information comes from strange places,” said Craig.
A Hate Crime?
“There were no [homophobic] epithets” uttered by the assailants, according to Zapata. He said, however, “it’s a reasonable conclusion” that homophobia probably played a significant role in the violence, “in light of the context.”
Any kind of serious violence is very rare in Swarthmore. Craig said that events “with the technical classification of assault” happen in the borough or the college “maybe twice a year,” usually involving “people known to each other,” often family members. (A robbery at gunpoint did occur on campus two years ago.)
But when there are any kind of “negative experiences” with those outside the campus community, said Redgrave, they almost always “involve individuals being under the influence of alcohol and/or attempting to gain entrance to parties where alcohol is being served.”
The assaulted student said that while the attack did involve teenagers trying to obtain alcohol, he felt that his perceived sexual orientation may also have come into play. “I can’t imagine them attacking a guy and a girl, two girls, [or] two guys they thought were straight.”
In his nine years at the college, Zapata says that “this is the first time this blatant kind of violence” has occurred.
Adam Bortner ’12 sees this event as “the latest in a disturbing pattern of verbal and physical assaults motivated by anti-gay/homophobic bias.” In a letter he wrote to the town paper The Swarthmorean last summer, he described incidents where teenage boys repeatedly verbally harassed him.
He told the Gazette that these interactions with local teenagers are not rare.
“When I share my story with friends and peers, sometimes other people will respond with similar experiences.” A friend of his had a soda dumped on him after being harassed by local youth.
Bortner believes that a resolution to these issues must come at least in large part from the local community, particularly the school district, as well as from the college. In his letter to the Swarthmorean, he wrote, “Community leaders and parents, please make it clear that bigotry and hate speech are never acceptable.”
“It’s easy to be lulled into a sense of false security and to buy into the myth of Swarthmore exceptionalism,” he said. “’Oh, that doesn’t happen here.’ As much as we talk about the Swarthmore bubble, we are not isolated from pervasive social issues like homophobia.”
In the weeks following his letter, a group formed to discuss these issues. Calling themselves the Swarthmore LGBTStraight Network, they “have had up to 20 people from Swarthmore and neighboring communities, representing various organizations, constituencies and walks-of-life,” according to Alison Masterpasqua, a McCabe employee and a member of the group.
They are meeting Thursday to “formulate a response to this disturbing event. […] The network’s intent is to find ways we can partner with community groups to raise awareness and counter just such attitudes and actions as occurred on campus this past weekend.”
Braun agreed that community awareness of these issues is “a good thing to lift up,” and something that she plans to discuss in her regular meetings with the mayor’s office and other branches of the town government. But she warned that the problem does not lie exclusively in Swarthmore.
Braun pointed out that Swarthmore is one of only a few towns in the area that do not enforce curfews for minors. (The nearby town of Folsom, for instance, instituted a 9 pm curfew for minors in 2006.) Because of that, Swarthmore is “a draw for high schoolers from a number of different towns.”
“We have no way of knowing if these perpetrators were Borough residents,” said Redgrave, “and we should not assume they were.”
Communication with the Community
Within an hour and a half of the attack, several RAs had sent out emails reporting a violent act had been committed against a student on Mertz field and urging their halls to be careful.
Yet there was no official communication of the incident to the student body until around 5 pm on Monday, when Public Safety sent out a bulletin via email saying a student and his friend were attacked near the Septa underpass by five individuals. It stated that they were treated by Worth for “minor cuts and abrasions.” The email was written by Redgrave, and approved by Braun before being sent out.
The Swarthmore student who was assaulted called this announcement “whitewashed.”
He said it implied that the attack “was further off campus than it was, sounded like it was a less thorough beating than it was, and made it sound like we just went to Worth and that was that, as opposed to spending all night in the hospital.”
The student added that although he was “frustrated by the announcement,” it was “not that surprising” that some of the details were wrong. Both victims “took hits to the head” and were “in shock” during the process, and so their reports were probably somewhat confused.
Other students who knew about the incident were outraged both by the content and the tardiness of this email. Zapata said that he “got tons of emails” about it, as did Braun.
Some of those emails “were measured,” said Zapata, “saying ‘Look, this is disturbing.’ Others said, ‘This feels like a cover-up.’”
Redgrave said that the email was slow to come because Public Safety “believed the incident represented an isolated crime.”
Swarthmore police and Public Safety officers “conducted a comprehensive search of campus,” said Redgrave, which “provided assurance that the perpetrators were no longer on campus.”
One RA in particular wrote an email response that ended up being forwarded around campus. He wrote that “public safety’s inadequate announcement [did] not address the true nature of the incidents that occurred on Saturday night.”
The RA said he “found it indefensible that the administration failed to report to all of you that these students were injured significantly, and that there is some possibility that they were targeted due to public expression of their sexual orientation.”
Redgrave said that Public Safety was not aware that the attack might have been a hate crime until late in the day on Monday.
Braun added that before sending out announcements, it is important to “make sure we do have the right facts.”
In terms of the email’s content, “For a number of reasons, often unique to each case, Public Safety cannot provide all of the details. Most often those reasons relate to the gathering of information in an ongoing investigation, substantiating facts, and not risking a compromise of the investigation — either our own or an outside law enforcement entity,” said Redgrave.
He chose not to comment on the specifics of why the severity of the assault and the students’ hospitalization were not mentioned in the email.
After seeing Redgrave’s response, Miriam Rich ’11 said that she “still cannot comprehend Public Safety’s initial assessment that this incident was not relevant to share immediately with the whole campus community. Even without being aware of the potentially homophobic context, a violent assault on-campus that leaves two students hospitalized is definitely the kind of thing that we should know about immediately.”
She added that she is “also still concerned that the initial Public Safety report displayed a disturbing pattern of altering and omitting key details of the case in a way that tended to minimize and trivialize the severity of the assault.”
Several students reported that they or their friends felt unsafe or uncomfortable after hearing about the incident, especially without any official word from the administration.
On Monday evening, Braun met with the student and discussed the incident, including his concerns about the announcement from Public Safety. She decided to send out another announcement, this one containing more details and some factual corrections, informing the community about the students’ hospitalization and that they had been openly showing affection towards one another before the attack.
Braun ran the content of this email by the student before sending it out.
Most students said that they appreciated this email greatly. The assaulted student in particular said that he was very grateful for the corrections and letting the community know much more about what had occurred.
Bortner said that he was “relieved” that Braun had “provided more of the story and more important information.”
Rich noted that she “appreciate[d] the content of the letter Dean Braun sent on Tuesday,” though she was still “baffled and distressed about the long delay in sending it.”
Redgrave said that in the aftermath of this incident, Public Safety is “carefully reviewing [their] protocols and believe we need to establish a more consistent approach to such incidents to make sure our community is aware of such crimes in a timely way.”
They also plan to work more closely with the Dean’s Office to make sure that announcements are “coordinated and reflect our combined knowledge of the incident.”
“Our first priority,” Redgrave said, “is always to ensure a safe and healthy environment for our students, faculty, and staff.”
Braun agreed that serious incidents like this one provide the important opportunity to “go back and look at our protocols, whether it’s around communication or our response.”
The Crisis Protocols Committee will be discussing this at their next meeting, which Braun believes is later this week. This review is “first and foremost” on her mind.
“The College needs to ensure,” said Braun, “that we have the right things in place to make sure that we can respond as quickly as possible” in the future.
Public Safety is “looking to step up their patrols through the end of the semester,” according to Braun. In the long run, Braun said the administration will need to “make sure we have the right amount of resources” allocated to Public Safety.
Redgrave wrote that in particular, “the area where this incident happened will receive higher scrutiny.”
Braun said the College will also need to “continue to educate students about what they can do to be proactive in their own safety,” something “this community already does a really nice job of.”
Concerned that the attack did have some connection to the students’ sexual orientation, many students, including the one who was assaulted, have expressed fears about safety at this weekend’s Genderfuck party (the party formerly associated with the Sager Symposium).
Braun said that the Dean’s Office had already been working very closely with the organizers of the event, as well as the Drug and Alcohol Resource Team (DART) and the Party Associates (PAs), to “make some improvements to the overall security of the event.”
This work, including relocating the party to Sharples (to reduce concerns about safety while moving between venues) and a “real increase” in the number of PAs who will be present, took place even before the events of last weekend.
A Facebook message sent Tuesday by one of the party’s organizers reminded attendees “to please be mindful of your surroundings and to look out for one [an]other. […] In committing ourselves to creating safer spaces for all students attending the party, I hope we can also work to create safer spaces for all expressions of identity on and off campus.”
As for the Swarthmore student involved in the incident, he said that he hopes “people will be safe” for the party. He plans to attend, as does the UPenn student, who is “actually super-pumped to come back for Genderfuck.”
Nick Gettino, Angela Meng, and Will Treece contributed reporting for this article.