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When threatening notes that targeted minority students started showing up around the Trinity International University campus in 2005, administrators spoke to the campus and conferred with police before ultimately evacuating all students of color from their residence halls. The Federal Bureau of Investigation came in to look into the apparent hate crime, and arrested a suspect in less than a week.

The whole thing was fake.

Things didn’t go quite that far this year at Central Connecticut State University, after a student claimed to be receiving notes in her dormitory room that attacked her for being a lesbian. But hundreds of students did hold a rally for her in March, long before police discovered earlier this month (thanks to a camera in a hall closet, which was installed after the one initially placed in her room was turned off) that she was slipping the notes under her own door.

Rarely are apparent hate crimes uncovered as hoaxes, but those sorts of incidents have been popping up on campuses for years and are still a difficult phenomenon to address.

“From the university perspective, we’re always going to have to react based on the evidence,” said Jen Day Shaw, associate vice president and dean of students at the University of Florida and chair of the Campus Safety Knowledge Community of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

“Obviously we can be reactive to it,” she said. “To be proactive is really tough.”

Hoax Hate Crimes

February 2012, Montclair State U.

Two black roommates are arrested on charges of false reporting, criminal mischief and disorderly conduct a week after they told authorities someone slipped a racist, sexist message under their door. They wrote it.

February 2012, U. of Wisconsin-Parkside

A black student confesses to writing racial threats that included a hit list of students. The notes prompted heightened security and several campus meetings.

July 2012, Central Connecticut State U.

Student Alexandra Pennell receives hate letters for being a lesbian. Authorities investigating the case find the student sent the letters to herself.

April 2011, U. of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Student Quinn Matney files a false police report saying he was branded with hot metal because he was gay; officials later find he made up the story.

March 2011, U. of Virginia

Student Johnathan Perkins makes up a story about police harassment in the form of racial profiling.

November 2007, George Washington U.

A hidden camera catches student Sarah Marshak drawing swastikas on her dorm room door after she reported multiple incidents of the vandalism. Marshak maintained she only drew the last few in a series of swastikas, to highlight the university's inaction.

April 2005, Trinity International U.

An unidentified student posts threatening notes to minority students so her parents would let her leave the university.

Several institutions that bore witness to hoaxes declined to comment on their response or how the incident affected their campus. But given that standard procedure is to fully investigate any seemingly legitimate allegation of harassment, hoaxes can cause significant drain on money and person power. And there are oft-floated fears that hoaxes negatively affect campus climate and the way people respond (or don’t) to complaints thereafter.

Students who go through with hoaxes tend to do so to meet some personal ends – to get out of school, say, as was the case at Trinity International, or to get some attention from friends or roommates, which motivated the Central Connecticut State student. But many aim to bring social issues to light. That was the case last year at the University of Virginia, when a student falsely claimed campus police harassed him because he was black. After he was discovered, the student said he wanted to draw attention to “the topic of police misconduct.” 

But one should not discount these incidents, even if they are set up, some officials say. Regardless of whether a hate crime actually occurred, the fact that a student would feel compelled to fake one points to a whole other set of problems beyond just crisis response.

“As an administrator, those are the kinds of things I’m really sensitive to – what are the students saying – because even if it’s not true, the perception is their reality,” said William L. Howard, assistant vice president of academic services at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. In other words, while a student’s method of calling attention to perceived prejudice may be flawed, that perception of prejudice still exists. “If you say, ‘This is not an issue on my campus,’ and a student has an experience that is counter to that, you have to listen to them.”

Mary-Jeanne Raleigh, director of counseling services at St. Mary’s and president of the American College Counseling Association, said the handful of students over the years who have been referred to her for reporting false crimes have perceived there to be a larger issue at play, such as fear for their own safety or perceived rejection or persecution on the campus.

Those cases typically get past the primary campus investigation stage, though.

“Unfortunately, when one does get through the first step in the process (past an initial investigation) it looks bad for all true victims of these types of crimes,” Raleigh said in an e-mail. “I think it speaks to the importance of professional and well-trained public safety staff.”

At Williams College, however, an unsolved hate crime that occurred last year is still thought by some to have been a hoax perpetrated by a minority student. There, someone wrote "All Niggers Must Die" across a wall inside a campus building, prompting the college to cancel all classes and athletic practices for a day, and students to march in solidarity to attend a speech by the college president, and participate in an open mic session on campus racism and discrimination.

However, Williams investigated every possible lead and piece of information and has "no reason to believe it was a hoax," spokeswoman Angela P. Schaeffer said. She said the investigation is "still open but not active."

Jon Sanders, director of regulatory studies at a nonpartisan, conservative-leaning think tank, the John Locke Foundation, who has written about hate-crime hoaxes, said that despite the good intentions of campus officials who react to hoaxes, they can sometimes make things worse.

"I think generally on a campus environment, you have so many well-meaning people who are intent on this not happening, and they are, for good reasons, horrified at the thought of it taking place, and so they want to make sure that the people around them who are equally horrified -- most of the time -- know that this is not acceptable behavior," Sanders said. "They're too busy caught up in that to think skeptically about it at first."

For instance, one woman's now-infamous allegations accusing three Duke University lacrosse players of gang rape triggered widespread protests and even death threats -- and mistreatment by faculty members and students, the accused athletes said -- before they were revealed as false.

"In general, the universities need to react with perspective," Sanders said. "Granted, if something bad happens, if there's a violent attack, people need to be warned. But it doesn't need to be completely politicized to the point where it turns out that you are upsetting people for not good reason, or worse, fanning the flames of racial or other kinds of tension that create a negative campus climate."

At Trinity International, there was the obvious hassle of getting all students of color to one “undisclosed location,” said Gary Cantwell, former vice president of communications and marketing at the university. (Cantwell no longer works at Trinity International.) Several of those students missed classes as a result. The whole thing required “massive” amounts of manpower for a couple of weeks.

But it also caused a less tangible problem: an unease among the black students who felt betrayed by the actions of the culprit, who was black and who devised the plan as a way to convince her parents to take her out of school. The students worried that because of what happened, real hate crimes wouldn’t be taken seriously – “the ‘cry wolf’ problem,” as Cantwell put it.

From the students’ perspective, “It seemed to weaken the case for them to say there are still examples of racism that happens in our society,” Cantwell said.

But although the possibility of a hoax “was more on our minds” after that incident, “there’s few things that we would have done differently,” Cantwell said.

“If we thought that somebody was really there trying to hurt people, we would take pretty drastic steps.”

Tempting as it may be, college officials should never let those doubts dictate how they handle bias response, said W. Scott Lewis, partner at the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management.

“When you think about harassment that’s on the basis of gender or race or ethnicity or sexual orientation, the number of false complaints still are in the low single-digit percentages. And so the fear is that something like this gets so much press, and then your investigative bodies … begin to get this sort of internalized bias,” Lewis said. “Good investigators – which most are – wouldn’t do that, but it is a concern.”

Some positives can come out of a hoax, too. Cantwell said the incident at Trinity International opened up an important and helpful series of dialogues about race relations on campus, and provided an opportunity to evaluate the university’s emergency response procedures (they worked well).

And it also contained another, perhaps more useful lesson to other institutions.

“One thing I would say it highlighted to us is, in the recruiting process we’re very cautious about families where the parent wants the student to come to school but the student doesn’t really want to,” Cantwell said. “We want to make sure we’re admitting students who are prepared to succeed at our school, and not students who are going to sabotage it.”

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