Higher education

Balancing the removal of offensive materials quickly versus preserving evidence a challenge for University of Iowa staff

'It is still very important to remove as quickly as possible'

David Visin, interim assistant vice president and director of University of Iowa Public Safety, talks about the new “soft space” interview room at the University of Iowa Police Department in Iowa City on Friday, Nov. 20, 2015. The
David Visin, interim assistant vice president and director of University of Iowa Public Safety, talks about the new “soft space” interview room at the University of Iowa Police Department in Iowa City on Friday, Nov. 20, 2015. The "soft space" interview room was designed to decrease stress and anxiety for survivors of sexual assault and other crimes who are reporting to law enforcement. (Stephen Mally/The Gazette)

IOWA CITY — Since a University of Iowa staff member two weeks ago found a racial slur carved into a bathroom door in Spence Laboratories, administrators have clarified procedures around removing such vandalism to make sure potential evidence is preserved.

Instead of cleaning up graffiti immediately, UI Facilities Management workers have been asked to contact the UI Department of Public Safety first to “give us the chance to investigate, if necessary,” said Dave Visin, interim director of the department.

“Dave is asking that when we see racially motivated, gender or hate-related remarks, epithets or symbols, that we isolate the area and call public safety,” David Jackson, assistant director of Facilities Management, wrote in a Dec. 1 email to Dan Heater, director of UI’s Building and Landscape Services. “It is still very important to remove as quickly as possible, however, if it is determined a hate crime, we don’t want to remove evidence.”

According to an email from Jackson, a UI staff member discovered the racial slur in a Spence Labs bathroom at 10:08 a.m. Nov. 30 and called “work control” and “we took care of it.”

“As far as when our staff in (Building and Landscape Services) find graffiti, whether inside the building or outside, they are trained to remove immediately,” Jackson wrote.

Visin told The Gazette, in the Spence Labs case, police arrived at the scene to investigate before maintenance crews sanded away the evidence. But, he said, the Facilities Management policy long has been to remove graffiti as quickly as possible and call police when actual damage occurred or in special circumstances.

And, as he noted in an email to fellow administrators after the vandalism was found in Spence Labs, the escalation and public awareness around hate crimes on college campuses of late requires an intensified response.

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“Across the country there is a heightened awareness and response regarding perceived and actual racial injustice,” Visin wrote in a Dec. 1 email obtained by The Gazette. “It is so very important that we take this with the utmost importance, as incidents like these can turn a campus on its ear, greatly affecting all of us, like it has been affecting other universities across the country.”

Going forward, Visin laid out the following response to potential hate-related vandalism: Authorities should respond to the scene immediately and conduct a thorough investigation; those on scene should call maintenance crews to address the damage; officers should contact UI Public Safety administration; and crews should mitigate the effect of vandalism by closing off the area and limiting access to those who could be affected until maintenance crews complete their work.

Visin said he’s talked with Jackson about what type of vandalism police want to be contacted about in the future.

“Anything that is discriminatory,” Visin said. “We had a difficult time narrowing that down, but — when in doubt — they would call a supervisor, who may call us.”

In remarks prepared for UI workers, Jackson said crews should call police about any graffiti that uses “racially or gender-motivated language, hate language, or insensitive remarks, written or carved epithets and symbols, which are discovered during the course of your work.”

“If you discover this type of graffiti and are uncertain whether it fits into this level of response, please contact your supervisor immediately,” according to Jackson’s message for workers. “It is important not to tamper with any potential evidence.”

Visin acknowledged hate crimes can be difficult to classify and said the university follows guidance from the FBI.

“But even sometimes they are judgment calls,” he said.

Visin said UI police are continuing to investigate the Spence Labs incident and have made no arrests. Hours after it was discovered, UI President Bruce Harreld issued a statement condemning the vandalism.

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“This act is offensive to our community and will not be tolerated,” he said in a statement.

In response to the statement, Harreld’s staff received both positive and negative feedback, according to emails obtained by The Gazette. Many praised him for the quick response, while a few criticized him for bringing it to light.

“By you sending this to all staff, this encourages/incites the person(s) that did this deed,” one staff member wrote in response to Harreld’s statement. “This kind of thing is precisely what fuels immature personalities that crave this kind of exposure. My fear is we will now observe escalation within the campus wide community.”

A UI alumnus wrote, “I am concerned that this was sent out as an email, which could possibly be the spark to ignite a firestorm and turn the campus into similar campuses.”

Colleges and universities that have faced issues of racism recently include the University of Missouri, Yale University, and the University of California-Los Angeles. Student protests last month prompted the head of the University of Missouri system to resign amid complaints he responded slowly and poorly to incidents of racism.

The University of Iowa one year ago found itself in the middle of a race-related controversy of its own after a visiting professor erected on the Pentacrest a 7-foot-tall statue created in the likeness of a Ku Klux Klansman. The statue was robed in screen printings of newspaper clippings depicting racist incidents throughout U.S. history, and the artist said he intended to raise awareness about discrimination.

But black students and others who saw it reported feeling threatened and offended, and their response to the statue prompted UI administrators to respond by having it removed.

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