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With Rise in Racially Charged Incidents on Campus, Colleges Work to Ease Students' Fears

by Chandelis R. Duster /
Peter Cvjetanovic (C) along with Neo-Nazis, alt-right, and white supremacists encircle and chant at counter protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, Aug.11, 2017.Samuel Corum / Getty Images

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Less than two months after white nationalists marched with torches across the campus of the University of Virginia, school officials nationwide are still struggling with how to ensure students feel welcome and safe on campus.

On Tuesday, cotton branches stapled to Confederate flags signs were seen posted around American University in Washington, D.C. On the same campus in May, students and officials found bananas hung in black noose-like rope, marked with the words "Harambe bait" and "AKA free," and apparent reference to the gorilla that was shot by Cincinnati zookeepers in May 2106, and the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.

 A confederate flag poster with a cotton plant attached, as well as a racist banana outside the Hurst building, both at American University in Washington, D.C. MTBarryJr, Courtesy Quinn Dunlea

Student body leader Taylor Dumpson, an American University senior and member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, said hate and violence will not be tolerated.

“As a student government president and an upperclassman, I have a duty to make sure this doesn't keep happening to students on my campus,” Dumpson said.

In September, Dumpson along with student leaders and university officials held a forum with lawmakers on protecting students’ civil rights and maintaining equality.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, said at the forum that she plans to introduce legislation on the issue and said it’s time for Congress to “be in on the fight.”

“We will take this both to the courts and to the legislative room to address the questions of, ‘What are the levels of free speech? What are the levels of violations of the Department of Education's civil rights laws?’ We will not in anyway stifle the ability to help you,” Jackson Lee said.

Related: ‘Crude, Racially Insensitive’: American University Finds Bananas Hanging in Nooses

After the Confederate flag signs were found, former Health and Human Services secretary and newly installed American University President Sylvia M. Burwell called for unity among students. “We will not be intimidated,” she said.

“AU will respond strongly to attempts designed to harm and create fear. Instead, we will recommit to creating a community that does not stand by,” Burwell said in a statement to students. ”When one of us is attacked, all of us are attacked.”

Dr. Fanta Aw, vice president of the office of campus life at American University told NBC News there’s been “soul searching” among school officials and a reassessment of policies.

Related: Move-in Weekend at UVA: Solidarity and Solace for Students of Color

“How do we ensure the physical safety of our students knowing that we’re a private institution and, more importantly, the emotional safety that our students are looking for and they are seeking? How do we create problematic initiatives around the issues we’re looking at?” Aw said.

In an effort to increase safety, the school added police cameras and radios to campus shuttle buses and moved the university police department to a more central location on campus.

The Rise in Hate

In May, American University announced the creation of the Antiracist Research and Policy Center, where faculty and students will research racial inequality, making recommendations for policies. Author and founding director Ibram X. Kendi said the white nationalist movement is intensifying.

The Confederate flag signs and cotton at the university were posted just hours after Kendi presented his plan for the new center Tuesday. They appeared around campus, including outside of his office.

One of the motivating factors for racist incidents occurring on college campuses, Kendi said, is the “demonstrated success of black students on campus.”

“Their organizing ideology is this notion that ‘White people are under attack, so white people are not able to speak the truth. White people are being discriminated against by the system, by the court, by the state,’” Kendi said.

The numbers of racist incidents on campuses — and around the country — appear to be increasing.

The Anti-Defamation League Center on Extremism has reported 188 white supremacist related incidents have occurred on 126 colleges campus since September of 2016.

Related: Hundreds of Hate Crimes Reported Since Election, Southern Poverty Law Center Says

The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that, since the 2016 presidential election, there has been a spike in hate and bias incidents across the United States. From Nov. 9 through March 31, there were 330 bias-related incidents on college campuses according to an analysis by the SPLC.

The organization released The Alt-Right On Campus: What Students Need To Know, describing the goal of the "alt-right movement" and how students can “deconstruct and counter its propaganda, mount peaceful protests, and create alternative events and forums when alt-right speakers” come to campus.

NBC News reached out to the Department of Education Office of Civil Rights to inquire about plans to combat hate and bias on college campuses but did not receive a response.

A Stabbing at the University of Maryland

Also in May, less than 10 miles away from American University, Richard Collins III, a senior at Bowie State University who was visiting friends on the University Maryland campus, was fatally stabbed by Sean Christopher Urbanski, a Maryland student.

 In the photo, Richard Collins III's graduation gown is shown draped over front row chairs at Bowie State University ceremony on May 23, 2017 in College Park, Maryland. Neal Augenstein / AP

Collins was black and Urbanski was white. The stabbing was initially investigated as a hate crime, but prosecutors only indicted him on murder charges. Urbanski had been part of a Facebook group “Alt-Reich Nation,” according to NBC4 in Washington.

On the first day of classes this fall, the university and Bowie State University held a moment of reflection across both campuses in Collin’s honor.

The university’s president, Wallace D. Loh, said in an email to students “the resurgence of white supremacists and​ neo-Nazis, and their​​ ​sulfurous ​rallies​,​ ​are a​n assault on our nation's most cherished ideals.” He added that the university implemented an “action plan to combat hate” to ensure students feel welcomed and have a sense of safety.

University of Maryland Interim Associate Provost and Chief Diversity Officer Roger L. Worthington said in a statement to NBC News that the university has “made a renewed commitment to fostering a welcoming, inclusive, and safe campus climate across every aspect of student life.”

A Canceled Rally at Texas A&M University

The August rally and subsequent violence in Charlottesville also put Texas A&M University on edge.

Out of concern for student safety, Texas A&M University canceled a “White Lives Matter” rally planned for Sept. 11 by Preston Wiginton.

Related: Hundreds Protest Speech by White Nationalist Richard Spencer at Texas A&M

“Linking the tragedy of Charlottesville with the Texas A&M event creates a major security risk on our campus,” the university said in a statement.

 Peter Cvjetanovic (C) along with Neo-Nazis, alt-right, and white supremacists encircle and chant at counter protesters in Charlottesville, Virginia, Aug.11, 2017. Samuel Corum / Getty Images

Tatiana Mclaren, a Texas A&M freshman from San Antonio, Texas, said last year’s campus protests and the canceled rally scared her, making her question her safety at school. She said she feels safer since the school canceled the September rally, but is still bothered that there was going to be a white nationalist rally at all.

“I grew up during the Obama Era so I felt comfortable. My president was black so I didn’t have to face overt racism, like it wasn’t out in the open,” Mclaren said. “It wasn’t as pronounced as it is today with Trump in office.”

Gentill Abdulla, a junior and president of the Black Student Alliance Council at Texas A&M said the university canceling the rally is “a step in the right direction” but more needs to be done.

“As far as being proactive I think there’s still steps to take. There’s more discussions to be had, more conversations to be had between people who have conflicting ideals,” Abdulla said.

Other Universities Across the Nation

Other schools have also seen a wave of racial incidents on campus.

Swastikas were found in the bathroom and in a residence hall at Georgetown University on the first day of Jewish holiday Rosh Hashanah. Swastikas were also found earlier this month carved into an elevator at the university. Bananas were also found on dorm room doors of black students at Temple University.

After a series of bomb threats and Swastika symbols were found painted on the walls of a resident hall at Washington State University, hundreds of students held a sit-in demanding change.

After outcry from students, James Allsup, former president of the WSU College Republicans, resigned from the group after photos of him marching with white supremacists at UVA surfaced on social media.

Related: Martese Johnson Writes an Open Letter to the University of Virginia’s Class of 2021

WSU President Kirk Schulz recently declined a request from state lawmakers to suspend the group.

“As emerging young adults who are learning about leadership, decision making, and accountability, we do not tell students who to elect as officers, what events they must offer, or determine the content of their programs,” Schulz said.

Jacob Heinen, a junior and former vice president of WSU College Republicans said he left the group because it conflicted with his morals and values. A conservative Republican, he is disgusted by what happened at UVA and said “hateful ideology is in no way consistent with American values.”

“Conservatives have to distinguish themselves from the alt-right plain in [sic] simple. They have to denounce this kind of behavior every time it occurs and to continue to be compassionate to others,” Heinen said in an email to NBC News.

As discussions continue on college campuses on how to stay united at a time when a country is deeply divided, Dumpson, the American University student, said the best way to stop hateful rhetoric and actions is to have an open dialogue.

“It’s making sure that when we’re speaking with people, we’re speaking positivity, speaking unity, speaking things into existence, she said, “making sure every person feels validated but making sure we’re supporting our most vulnerable communities.”

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