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A False Report, With Consequences

In January, three black students reported a hate crime. Now, after authorities released evidence that the students lied, SUNY Albany tries to move forward.

May 9, 2016
 
SUNY Albany's Unity Wall

They boarded the bus in the early morning hours. They were three black students, surrounded by white passengers. As they headed onto the State University of New York at Albany's main campus, the fight broke out.

When they got off the bus, the three students called the police. They said that the other passengers attacked them, punching them in the head and yelling racial slurs.

In the months since, the incident gained national attention. In early February, the students and their allies organized a rally. Hillary Clinton weighed in on Twitter.

“Tens of millions of people were exposed to this,” said university spokesman Joseph Brennan. “It appeared to many people that a horrible, hateful violent crime had taken place on our campus.”

But in late February, the police released the surveillance video. Ariel Agudio, Asha Burwell and Alexis Briggs were not victims of a hate crime, police said. In fact, they were the attackers; they had started the fight.

“We spent a great deal of time carefully reviewing the audio recordings to determine whether any racial slurs were used,” University Police Department Chief J. Frank Wiley said in a statement. “The only person we heard uttering racial epithets was one of the defendants.”

The students were indicted earlier last week, charged with assault and false reporting. And now they have also been punished by the Student Conduct Board, The Times Union reported. Two of the students have been expelled and one suspended.

It’s a charged turn of events for the university, still reeling from the fallout. Some were angry that the university president initially supported the three students, without adequate respect for due process. "You heard a story, immediately took it to be true, and sent out an email to the student and faculty body, indicting 10 to 12 students for their crimes," Jeffrey Rosenheck​, a senior at Albany, wrote in the student newspaper, The Albany Student Press.

Others worried what would happen to race relations on campus. In the aftermath of the initial reports, supporters banded together, organizing activities and discussions to promote equality and acceptance on campus. At the February rally, attended by hundreds, the three students stood solemnly together at a podium. “As you all have heard,” Burwell told the crowd, “my friends Ariel, Alexis and I have experienced something no one should ever have to experience in their lives.”

Now, many of their supporters wonder what comes next: If the three students were lying, what does that mean for the legitimate progress made on campus? In future hate crimes, will we believe the victims?

"Did it occur to you that you weren’t a woman of one (or three, since Ariel Agudio and Alexis Briggs are part of this, too) crying wolf, but rather your actions, your decisions, your choices will make people -- the public, and otherwise -- think many who come after you with their own legitimate, fair, honest claims of assault are also lying?" Kristi Barlette wrote in an open letter to Burwell in The Times Union.

Yet others argue that the three students are telling the truth. In a series of open letters, activist groups argued that the video footage was incomplete, and that the students’ misdemeanor charges are being dealt with overzealously. When the Albany police and the University Judicial Board levied criminal and student conduct charges, the groups wrote, they sent a message: “If you are a black woman attacked in Albany, do not defend yourself, and do not call the police.”

In the weeks after the incident, the university was flooded with media inquiries and phone calls from parents, asking after their children’s safety. Campus leaders formed an incident management team of 10 senior administrators, which met daily for six weeks.

“I've dealt with many crises over the course of my career,” Brennan said, “and I've never seen one create as much disruption.”

Brennan said that the incident consumed large amounts of staff time, and other projects were neglected. But Albany is the most diverse of the four large State University of New York campuses, and Brennan is most concerned about the damage to Albany’s reputation: How many prospective students will see Albany as a place that’s unfriendly to people of color?

So far, there hasn’t been a drop in applications or enrollment deposits. But it’s a long time between now and August, Brennan said. Until the school year begins on Aug. 29, the university can’t know for sure what will happen with enrollment.

“This is a wonderful campus, especially for students of color. They thrive here,” he added. “It troubles me that there might be some families out there who think, ‘I don’t want my child to attend.’”

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