Students, faculty discuss hate crime prevention after swastika found in Simmons

Suggestions include mandatory diversity training for student leaders, collaboration between political clubs

Simmons residents found a swastika drawn in chalk on a fifth floor hallway wall Oct. 25. MIT campus police classified the incident as a hate crime, according to an email from Head of House Ellen Essigmann to residents.

In response, Vice President and Dean for Student Life Suzy Nelson hosted an event open to the entire MIT community Nov. 3 called Standing up for One MIT. The purpose of the event was to discuss “ways we can ensure our residence halls, classrooms, and community spaces are places that celebrate kindness, understanding, and respect,” according to an email that Nelson sent to the student body.

After Simmons residents reported the swastika to the Simmons House Team and Area Director Kristen Shannon, the Bias Response Team (BRT) conducted an initial assessment and coordinated a response plan. Simmons Head of House John Essigmann informed all residents of the incident in an email the same day. Rabbi Michelle Fisher SM ’97 also emailed the Simmons Jewish residents separately, according to Nelson.

In a follow-up email that Ellen Essigmann sent to all residents Oct. 27, she invited residents to a community open house that took place later that day. “A few members of the House Team will be there to listen, to support, and to provide information on where to go to receive additional help,” Essigmann wrote in her email.

The MIT police determined that a “timely warning” notice was not necessary. “It has to reach a certain threshold to become a community-wide alert,” Nelson said in a phone interview with The Tech.

Nelson emailed the Undergraduate Association (UA), Dormitory Council (DormCon), and Graduate Student Council (GSC) leadership a draft of her email about the Standing up for One MIT event Oct. 31. She asked them to revise it and individually sign their names. “I thought it would have far more impact if it were a broader message from the student leaders and me,” Nelson said.

UA, DormCon, and GSC leaders were present at the event, where they discussed ideas for combatting hate crimes on campus.

DormCon President Yuge Ji ’18 suggested mandating diversity and inclusion training as requirements for student leaders, like those in the UA. Ji later toldThe Tech that she only would support highly encouraged, rather than mandatory, training.

“It’s difficult to see how important the training is until after you do it,” she said. “It’s especially important for student leaders, who are the ones making decisions and communicating with the student body.”

UA President Sarah Melvin ’18 agreed with the idea of training for all student leaders. The UA had previously brought MIT’s diversity and inclusion officer Judy “JJ” Jackson to give a talk during their fall retreat, Melvin said in an interview with The Tech.

Melvin also thought that more academic programs could advocate for diversity and inclusion, such as “a HASS elective focused on learning about different cultures, or a freshman seminar in order to have more dialogue with peers about identity.”

UA Vice President Alexa Martin ’19 proposed collaboration among the political clubs. “There’s room for political clubs to work with each other to create events where students are able to talk openly and understand each other’s views better,” Martin said in a phone interview with The Tech.

The administration has already taken steps to promote diversity and inclusion. The Academic Council Working Group on Community and Inclusion was formed in December 2015 in response to the sets of recommendations that the Black Students’ Union and Black Graduate Students’ Association published addressing racial and mental health issues.

Based on the recommendations, the administration implemented a two-hour diversity program during Freshman Orientation week starting in fall 2016. The Division of Student Life, libraries, and all departments also each developed mission statements about diversity, according to Nelson.

Nelson plans to reach out to more students through their living groups. “Even at study breaks, there can be meaningful conversations that bring these issues of bias and prejudice to the broader community,” Nelson said. “This is the responsibility of all of us, not one office. We all have to take the responsibility for change on an individual and collective level.”