Swastikas at Georgia campuses create unease, calls for more security

Incidents in Athens, Milledgeville part of increasing hate crime trend

Carolyn Dinberg said she felt “sucker punched” when she got a call a few weeks ago from her daughter, Ariana, a first-year student at the University of Georgia.

Ariana told her mother someone wrote “all heil” and drew a swastika — a symbol of anti-Semitism — on her memo board outside her dorm room. Ariana described the situation in her typical calm manner, but she didn’t feel safe.

“It took me by surprise,” said Dinberg, an attorney. “You definitely didn’t think it would happen here. But it’s happening everywhere, and it’s kind of sad.”

Jewish students, their parents and supporting organizations are exploring additional safety measures after recent acts of anti-Semitic vandalism at campuses nationwide, including at UGA, the state’s flagship school, and at Georgia College & State University.

The incidents have unnerved students and their families, and the presidents of both Georgia schools have condemned the acts. But others say more must be done.

“This shouldn’t be in your mind, concerns if you are going to be safe,” said Brett Feldman, 21, a senior at UGA who met with the university’s dean of students to discuss student concerns.

Hillel International, the Jewish student organization at 550 campuses, is assessing security at its campus facilities, said Matt Berger, senior adviser to Hillel’s Israel Action Program. Some University of Georgia students are proposing measures, such as installing cameras in the hallways of dorms. UGA’s Student Government Association passed a resolution to create programs educating students about hate crimes.

Georgia is one of five states that does not have a hate crimes law, and advocates say the incidents show why one is needed.

“I feel like it’s a deterrent that would prevent a student from acting that way,” said Feldman, who is president of the Georgia Israel Public Affairs Committee, a student group.

> RELATED: Hate crimes bill expected to stall in Georgia Senate

The state’s House of Representatives passed a bill earlier this year that would create stiffer penalties for people who commit crimes based on hate. The bill stalled in the Senate after some lawmakers questioned its effectiveness. The bill will likely come up for a vote next year, lawmakers say.

“It makes you feel like someone has your back,” Lauren Menis, co-founder of the Atlanta Initiative Against Anti-Semitism, said of a hate crimes bill.

At UGA, swastikas were drawn on message boards in Creswell and Russell halls. At Georgia College, a campus with about 7,000 students located in Milledgeville, two students reported to campus officials that a swastika was drawn on the doors of their residence hall. In addition, an off-campus resident in Milledgeville reported that the words “white power” were written in dust on a vehicle near the campus. It’s unclear if the acts on the campuses are connected. The schools have thus far not reported who was responsible for the vandalism. UGA police have consulted with the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, university spokesman Greg Trevor said Tuesday afternoon.

> RELATED: Metro Atlanta mothers fight anti-Semitism in local schools

The incidents in Georgia took place as officials at Syracuse University in upstate New York investigate four similar cases, including a swastika, on that campus in a recent eight-day stretch, angering many students who feel administrators reacted slowly and poorly communicated their response. Swastikas have also been drawn on an academic building at Smith College and UMass Amherst Fine Arts Center, according to published reports.

A U.S. Government Accountability Office report in October found religious-based hate crime on college campuses has increased significantly nationwide over the past decade. Religious-based hate crimes reported to the U.S. Department of Education increased from 103 in 2009 to 189 in 2017, and crimes reported to the U.S. Department of Justice increased from 24 in 2009 to 59 in 2017, the GAO report found.

Most of the hate crimes were anti-Semitic or anti-Muslim. About 60% of the crimes were vandalism. There were 13 crimes in Georgia since 2009, an AJC review of the Department of Education’s database found.

The American Jewish Committee Atlanta conducted a survey on anti-Semitism a few months ago that found 36% of respondents believe the college campus climate toward pro-Israeli students is more hostile than it was a year ago. Another 40% believed the climate was about the same.

“I think (the recent acts in Georgia) are great indicators that the threat is alive and well,” said Dov Wilker, the committee’s regional director.

UGA and Georgia College administrators asked students to share any information with campus authorities that may help the investigation. They’re also offering counseling services. Both presidents wrote messages to students, but some are critical of the response. Some say they were too slow. Wilker was glad UGA President Jere Morehead described the incidents as “displays of hate,” but believes he should have also called them anti-Semitic.

Credit: Collegiate Images

Credit: Collegiate Images

Max Harris, a senior at UGA majoring in history, described this as an "important moment" for students and administrators to unite and be vocal against acts of hatred. He noted, with regret, that was not forcefully done in March when a fraternity was suspended after a video appearing to show some of its members using a racial slur and mocking slavery went viral on social media.

“It is up to us to say that this is unacceptable,” said Harris, a senator in UGA’s Student Government Association.

Dinberg described UGA’s initial response to what her daughter reported as “frustrating,” but credits administrators for meeting with Ariana. The university, she was told, did not want to call too much attention to what happened to avoid copycats. Ariana, who returned home Tuesday for Thanksgiving break, is doing fine.

“She’s resilient,” Dinberg said.