Chronicle of Higher Education
From the issue dated January 8, 1999
Hate-Crime Hoaxes Unsettle Campuses
At 5 institutions, students staged incidents in which they claimed to be victims of bigotry
By BEN GOSE
The news rocked the citizens of the small college town of St. Cloud, Minn.: Just two weeks after a gay student in Wyoming had been murdered, one of their own -- a lesbian at St. Cloud State University -- apparently had also become a victim of a hate crime.
Jennifer Prissel, a senior, told police officers in October that two men in a parking lot had punched her in the eye and cut her face while yelling anti-gay slurs at her. The attack, she said, came on the same night that about 100 St. Cloud students held a memorial vigil for the Wyoming student, Matthew Shepard.
News of the local incident galvanized the St. Cloud campus. About 600 students, professors, and community members attended a second vigil, this time in support of Ms. Prissel. The university put up $1,000 to start a reward fund for information about the attackers and said it would match other contributions two-for-one. The fund grew to nearly $12,000.
Gay students at St. Cloud were horrified by Ms. Prissel's account but thrilled by the public response. "It was a giant step forward to bringing the community around to respecting gay students," says Tammy Buzzard, a junior and a member of Lambda, a gay-student group. "A lot of people took time out to help her, to rally around her."
That support came to an abrupt end last month, when Ms. Prissel confessed to police that she had made up the entire incident.
"I'm embarrassed, betrayed, and hurt," Ms. Buzzard says. "I commend her for being such a great actress. It was really hard not to believe her."
A little more skepticism may have served Ms. Buzzard well. Several recent hate-crime reports on college campuses have turned out to be hoaxes.
In the past 18 months, police on at least four other campuses -- Duke University, Eastern New Mexico University, Guilford College, and the University of Georgia -- have investigated hate-crime reports that made headlines, only to discover that the crimes had been made up.
The flurry of fabrications doesn't necessarily suggest a trend on the campuses: Even outside of academe, bogus crime reports are not uncommon. Dennis M. O'Keefe, chief of police for the city of St. Cloud, says about 2 per cent of the crime reports in the United States are false. The Federal Bureau of Investigation does not compile statistics on false crime reports.
Experts note that many of the people who falsely report crimes are going through difficult periods in their lives, and may invent incidents to receive attention. Ms. Prissel, in an apology published in the University Chronicle, the student newspaper at St. Cloud, wrote that the fictional attack had given her a way to reach out for help at a time when she was suffering from stress, depression, and the illness of a family member. "All of the pain and tears that were exhibited by me were real," she wrote. She did not return phone calls for this story.
"A lot of times young people get themselves in a heck of a fix," says Mr. O'Keefe. "They lie once, they lie again to cover it -- pretty soon, they're lying all the time."
At least one observer of higher education, however, suspects that the recent hate-crime hoaxes on campuses have a more sinister cause. In a July 1998 article in Clarion, the monthly magazine of the Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, Jon Sanders argues that some campus "leftists" may be faking hate crimes to "influence their campus's move toward multiculturalism."
"Even a contrived crime shows, in their parlance, that hate could happen here," writes Mr. Sanders, a research fellow at the center, which is based in Research Triangle Park, N.C.
He offers the Duke case as an example. When a black baby doll was found hanging from a noose in a tree on the campus in November 1997, a Duke administrator immediately denounced the incident as a hate crime. The doll had been hung outside the Cambridge Inn, where members of the Black Student Alliance were to gather later that day for a protest over what they saw as the university's inability to improve race relations on the campus.
A few days later, two black students confessed to having created the mock lynching, explaining that they had wanted to make a political statement. The students, who had also tarred a bench below the tree, were ordered to pay a few hundred dollars in clean-up costs by Duke's judicial board.
Some classmates defended the two students, whose names were not released. In a letter to The Chronicle, Duke's student newspaper, Worokya Diomande called the act "tasteless," but said "the idea behind the act ... is being overlooked."
"The idea is that the university has not changed," wrote Ms. Diomande, who graduated last spring. "Blacks are allowed to be enrolled here, but the idea is the equivalent of the transition from field slave to house slave."
In an interview, Mr. Sanders, the research fellow, says students who stage such hoaxes feel emboldened to do so because they know they have advocates who will rush to their defense. But "I just can't see how that will help in the long run," he says. "If there is so much disingenuousness with these reportings, it can only serve to make people distrustful and less likely to believe that such things really can happen."
At St. Cloud State, students who feel burned by Ms. Prissel are trying to avoid becoming cynical. "People feel taken advantage of," says Kristin Albrecht, managing editor of the student newspaper and a graduate student in information media. "A lot of people had trust in her, and there was a big outpouring of money and affection.
"But I hope that it will be taken at face value. This is just one individual. If there is another hate crime on the campus, I hope that people won't immediately think it's another fake."
To be sure, colleges are not immune from real hate crimes. Prosecutors in Laramie, Wyo., announced last week that they would seek the death penalty for the two men charged with luring Mr. Shepard, a 21-year-old freshman, from a bar and then beating him, tying him to a fence, and leaving him to die.
Far more common, however, are acts that are offensive rather than criminal. For example, in October, Dartmouth College students were invited to dress for a fraternity-and-sorority "ghetto party." Many people on the campus were outraged, and 400 students and faculty and staff members attended a protest at which they joined hands in a show of solidarity. The party's organizers later expressed regret over the theme in the student newspaper, The Dartmouth.
Sometimes even the exposure of a hoax can be "a catalyst" leading to "honest conversation about difficult topics," notes Donald W. McNemar, president of Guilford College.
When Molly Martin, president of the Student Senate at Guilford, reported in February that she had been assaulted -- with the words "nigger lover" scrawled on her chest -- administrators quickly announced that they would take steps to address racial tension. Ms. Martin, who is white, had endorsed a proposal to create a full-time director of African-American affairs.
Police dropped their investigation of the attack in April, calling Ms. Moore a "reluctant witness." She later dropped out of Guilford, and apologized in a letter to the student-life dean for "acts that were inappropriate and that were injurious" to the college. In an interview, Ms. Moore reiterated that the attack occurred, but she declined to specify what she had apologized for in the letter.
The vast majority of people on the campus now believe that the assault never took place. Even so, the college has moved ahead with the changes precipitated by the incident. Guilford has added the African-American-affairs position and has developed new academic programs to support minority students. Last fall, it held two days of "community building" workshops with faculty and staff members.
"These are important conversations that we are having," says Mr. McNemar, "and we should carry them forward regardless of the reality of the initiating events."
Police at the University of Georgia were flabbergasted last year by the continuing harassment apparently directed at Jerry Kennedy, a 23-year-old resident assistant who is openly gay. He claimed that he had been the victim of nine hate crimes, including harassing phone calls, during the past three years. Police accelerated their investigation when he reported in January and February that the pro-gay literature he put on his door had been set on fire three times.
But during questioning, Mr. Kennedy confessed that he himself had set the fires. Under a plea agreement, he was sentenced by a state Superior Court judge to three years of probation for two counts of arson, and three counts of false reporting of a crime. Mr. Kennedy, who is no longer a resident assistant, was also ordered by a university judicial committee to pay for damage caused by the fires. He could not be reached for comment.
Comments that Mr. Kennedy had made to the student newspaper before his confession suggest that he may have had a political motive for setting the fires. A reporter asked him how he felt about a push by the Lesbian, Gay, and Bisexual Student Union to have the university create a panel to look into hate crimes. "It makes me feel like I'm doing the right thing," he told The Red and Black, "and I appreciate the support."
A student at Eastern New Mexico University fabricated an even more bizarre hate crime in August 1997. Miranda Prather, a graduate student in English, who is a lesbian, told police that she had been attacked and injured after her name was included with those of seven professors on what appeared to be an anti-gay "hit list" posted at a nearby laundromat.
Police arrested Ms. Prather after a surveillance camera at the laundromat revealed that she had tacked up the anti-gay missive.
Randall M. Harris, the local district attorney, says Ms. Prather had cut herself with a kitchen knife to fake the attack. Ms. Prather was charged with filing a false complaint, harassment, and stalking. Her first trial ended in a mistrial, but the charges are scheduled to be heard again this August.
Mr. Harris does not believe that Ms. Prather staged the attack to prompt the university to take steps to improve the climate for gay students. "I think this is more personal for her," he says. She had a "crush" on one of the professors on the list, he says. "She wanted to put herself in this hate-mail literature with her professor to force them to be together." Ms. Prather could not be reached, and her lawyer did not return telephone calls.
In St. Cloud, police have decided not to press charges against Ms. Prissel for falsely reporting an assault. "I'd end up further in the hole on this thing that it's worth," Chief O'Keefe says. "And for what? A couple-of-hundred-dollar fine."
But a St. Cloud State spokesman says Ms. Prissel will face a hearing in the university's judicial system for violating its code of conduct.
The university is also trying to decide what to do with the $11,695 in reward money it raised. Ms. Buzzard, the St. Cloud student, says the money should be set aside as a reward for information about any future attacks motivated by hate.