Simon's Rock probe finds reported attack, racist graffiti likely 'staged' to spark race dialogue

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GREAT BARRINGTON — Independent investigators hired by Bard College at Simon's Rock have concluded that a female student's report of being attacked on campus in September, and the incidents of racist graffiti that preceded it, were all likely fabricated to spark dialogue on campus about racism.

In a Dec. 23 email to college alumni, college leaders included an earlier letter sent to the school community noting that the private investigators came to the same conclusion as the Berkshire County District Attorney's Office. The investigators made the decision based on their interviews and documentary evidence about racist graffiti spotted on campus on Sept. 12 and Sept. 25, as well as the reported assault on a student of color on Sept. 27.

In November, the DA dropped the case for lack of evidence, and police and prosecutors said the student's refusal to cooperate prevented charging her for making a false report.

"The investigators spent several days on campus, interviewed twenty-nine individuals, spoke with local police, and reviewed documentary evidence, including communications sent by College employees and officials; photographs of the graffiti; and the physical location and surroundings of the reported assault," wrote Provost and Vice President Ian Bickford, who is on leave, Acting Provost Dimitri Papadimitriou, and Vice Provost Sue Lyon.

The letter, which a college alumnus forwarded to The Eagle, also said that investigators did not find any person or group who claimed responsibility, even anonymously, "which tends to be inconsistent with attempts to stoke fear in a community."

"Based on interviews and documentary evidence, the independent investigators found it probable that events on campus were staged in order to provoke further conversation on campus about racism."

The administrators also pledged the early college's continued commitment to a safe campus and one that is inclusive to all students. They also plan to develop new strategies toward racial equity and have hired a consultant for a campus safety audit, since the incident also ignited fears about insufficient safety protocols or measures taken in a college that is set in the woods off Alford Road.

The crisis unfolds

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Not a month after fall orientation on Aug. 17, the campus was swept into crisis after the N-word was found scrawled in marker on a student union chalkboard more than once, and a swastika discovered etched into a campus bathroom stall.

Then came the report of an attack just after 2 p.m. on Sept. 27. The student, 18, claimed she had been assaulted, knocked unconscious and dragged into the woods while walking on a campus path. She did not identify an assailant.

That evening, college leaders notified the community by email of the attack, police and security stepped up patrols. The possible racial component to the attack triggered notification to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

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School was canceled, and many students fled the campus. The Black Student Union and others said there were problems on campus both with intolerance among staff and students, and safety. The BSU issued a list of demands to administrators on both counts. The college says that nearly half of its students are people of color.

And a professor resigned, citing her concerns about administration's handling of the alleged attack.

But as time wore on, an assailant was never identified. And it was still unclear to students whether there was a racist attacker on the loose.

More unrest erupted when town Police Chief William Walsh told The Eagle that the attack was not a hate crime, and over the The Eagle's subsequent headline quoting Walsh.

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The student has not been publicly identified. The Eagle is still awaiting requested investigation reports as well as the estimated cost of the investigation to both the state, the DA's office and Great Barrington police.

According to a November statement from the DA's office, law enforcement devoted "significant resources to investigating this matter given the disturbing nature of the report and the concerns over potential racial motivations for the attack."

DA spokesman Andrew McKeever said on Monday that the office had no further comment about the case than those previously stated.

Vice Provost Sue Lyon could not be reached for comment Monday.

In the letter, college leaders indicated their awareness that this news might rattle the community. They said despite what might have been a hoax, the problem of racism is very real, and a scourge that they plan to keep addressing.

"Even as we bring this matter and investigation to a close, we cannot close our eyes or minds to the reality of racial injustice or our responsibility to those most vulnerable to hate," they wrote. "We want to assure you that our commitment to building a more equitable, inclusive, and safe community remains steadfast and ongoing."

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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