What You Need to Know About Hate Crimes On Campus

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Reviewed by Angelique Geehan

  • There were nearly 2,000 reports of hate crimes on college campuses in 2019.
  • College students should learn more about what biases qualify as hate crimes.
  • Spikes in hate crimes are in part a reflection of current events and better reporting.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, reported hate crimes at college campuses were on the rise. By the end of 2019, nearly 2,000 hate crimes were reported at postsecondary institutions throughout the United States.

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Now, as schools reopen and students are welcomed back to campus for the first time in more than a year, concerns about spikes in hate crimes have reappeared.

Much of these concerns stem from the surge in reported hate crimes around the U.S. in 2020. College campuses often reflect the environment that surrounds them, so if hate crimes are on the rise outside of campus, there's a stronger possibility for them to rise on campus too.

For college students, the key elements to know about hate crimes are what qualifies as bias, the reasons they are increasing, how and why to report such an incident, and guidance on where to get help with the healing process if you are a victim.

How to Define and Quantify Hate Crimes

Hate crimes, tracked and examined by the FBI, are defined as offenses like vandalism, arson, assault, or murder that contain an added element of bias.

For an offense to qualify as a hate crime, it must be motivated fully or in part by the perpetrator's bias against the victim's "race, religion, disability, sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or gender identity."

Though the FBI catalogues and investigates these crimes, the data is often described as unreliable due to massive underreporting.

According to Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University, San Bernardino, and his colleague, John Reitzel, principal investigator at the center, the significant underreporting of hate crimes is attributed to the fears of those in the minority communities who are the target.

"Minority students often pick their battles and will stay silent when they become the victim of these crimes," Reitzel said in an interview with BestColleges. "They just want to get by, they're trying to navigate, and sometimes they're afraid to speak out."

Brendan Lantz, assistant professor and the director of the Hate Crime Research and Policy Institute at Florida State University, agrees, adding that minorities often have complex relationships with police and won't turn to them at the first sign of trouble.

Why Hate Crimes Keep Increasing Every Year

Based on data from the federal Office of Postsecondary Education's Campus Safety and Security survey, reports of hate crimes on college campuses have risen by almost 57% over the last decade. Hate crimes across the country also have spiked. Experts expect the trend to continue when 2020 numbers are released.

These experts point to at least three reasons for this continued spike in the last 10 years.

Hate Crimes Reflect Current Events

First, according to Levin, is that in many cases, hate crimes are a direct response to current events and tensions in the national, and sometimes global, community.

This can more specifically include responses to political events, in which the messages and actions of politicians fuel support of stereotypes against specific groups.

For example, the increases in anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S. in 2020 were seen as a direct response to discriminatory messaging about the Asian community as the nation battled COVID-19.

Different Backgrounds, One Campus

Another underlying cause of the rapidly rising reports of hate crimes on campuses has to do with the structure of the student population.

"One of our key findings when studying this a few years ago was that the more diverse a student population is, the more likely it is that there would be hate crimes on campus," Reitzel said.

Lantz has noticed similar trends in his research on hate crimes in general and notes that what makes college campuses unique is how they gather people from different backgrounds and put them all together in one space. Some of these students come from very homogenous backgrounds.

"On the one hand, research shows that exposure to other groups can reduce prejudice in the long term," he said. "But in the short term, you also have the opportunity for victimization to increase when all these people from different backgrounds come together in a physical space."

More Attention Means More Reporting

The third factor contributing to rising reports is the nature of crime statistics and how they reflect actual behavior along with society's response to it.

"We're seeing increased victim awareness, increased media coverage, and increased efforts to track these incidents, and all these things are going to contribute to a measured increase (in the number of reported cases) each year," Lantz said in an interview.

Racial hate crimes reported on campuses were the most frequently occuring offenses in 2019. They accounted for approximately 23% of all reported hate crimes that year.

However, the true majority of hate crimes that occur on campuses often cannot be categorized under just one bias. Instead, an individual will be targeted for multiple aspects of their identity.

How and Why to Report Campus Hate Crimes

Should students find themselves targets of hate crimes or other discriminatory bias, experts suggest immediately reporting it.

"Not even just to the police, but reporting it to the university is incredibly important," Reitzel said. "Make people aware of what has happened to you."

"Even if it's not a crime, any student that has experienced hostility and been made to feel unwelcome due to their race, religion, gender identity, or anything else should let people know about it."

If you're uncomfortable reporting an incident to campus law enforcement, find an on-campus organization that reflects the interests of your identity to discuss what has happened and what steps you'd like to take next.

How Schools Can Better Support Their Student Body

After a student has been a victim of a hate crime, they are often left with trauma and in need of recovery. Though universities continue to expand their mental health services, minority students who have been victimized will not always feel comfortable using them.

One reason for this is the demographics disparity among the student body and university staff. According to recent data from the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, the overwhelming majority of on-campus care staff is white, cisgender, heterosexual, and/or able-bodied.

Minority students, particularly those who have been victimized for their identity, are more likely to seek treatment from an individual like themselves.

Addressing this disparity in not only race, but also sexuality, ability, and gender identity could help make students feel more comfortable seeking treatment on campus after an event.

Institutions could also take advantage of the available data to help make a much broader impact on driving down the number of hate crimes both on and off campuses.

What Returning to Campus May Look Like

Because increases in hate crimes are often triggered by current events, it's too soon to tell what the environment on campus will be like in the fall. But most experts agree that students shouldn't be too fearful.

"I expect ... some issues may arise, but I wouldn't want students to worry too much about becoming a target of these crimes," Reitzel said. "Though the percentages are often large, the actual number of incidents tends to stay small."

Levin added that "universities are uniquely empowered … to re-envision and transform the response to aggression and prejudice. They can apply the research (on hate crimes) that's out there in a nonpartisan, objective way that promotes civic values."

Reviewed by: Angelique Geehan

Portrait of Angelique Geehan

Angelique Geehan

Angelique Geehan works to support and repair the connections people have to themselves and their families, communities, and cultural practices. A queer, Asian, gender-binary, nonconforming parent, Geehan founded Interchange, a consulting group that offers anti-oppression support. She organizes as part of several groups, including National Perinatal Association's Health Equity Workgroup, the Health and Healing Justice Committee of the National Queer and Trans Asian and Pacific Islander Alliance, QTPOC+ Family Circle, and Batalá Houston.

Feature Image: MediaNews Group / The Mercury News via Getty Images / Contributor

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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