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BSU's Nasty November

Recanted Greenbelt attack just one part of a tumultuous time on campus

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When a Boise State student reported on November 9 that he had been assaulted on campus by a group of men shouting anti-gay epithets, the campus responded in short order. Within five days, student groups and administrators assembled a well-attended rally titled "No Oppression Tolerated--N.O.T. on our campus," with speakers from both the student body and the administration condemning the attack.

When police announced two weeks later that the same student had confessed to fabricating the attack, students campus-wide might have been relieved that such an event had, well, not happened on their campus.

But at the end of what has been a turbulent month for the Boise State community, some students say their concerns over campus safety haven't decreased at all. The Boise Police Department is still investigating the matter.

But in the meantime, students say such a thing could definitely happen at Idaho's largest university.

"I wasn't surprised to hear that an attack occurred, even if it didn't actually occur," said Woody Howard, chairman of Boise State's Bisexuals, Gays, Lesbians and Allies for Diversity (BGLAD) club. "This situation has gotten out of hand, and there is a hostile environment being created for everybody."

Now, students and administrators are nervously awaiting the results of a study, undertaken by the school last year, about the social climate on the Boise campus.

The situation to which Howard refers is an ongoing public feud between politically conservative students and student groups and minority clubs such as BGLAD and the Latino unity group Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan (MEChA). The terms of the debate have been anything but cordial--both camps have compared the other to Nazis in editorials and unauthorized posters on campus. Members of the minority groups also say they have been subject to an unusual amount of threats and harassment, and that the similarities between the public debate and the harassment incidents are too striking to dismiss.

"One of our students had a 'send-'em-to-Jesus' type thing slipped under her door, and it had a picture of an AK-47 drawn on it," said Juan Martinez, a welding instructor and faculty advisor for MEChA. Martinez says the rancor surrounding MEChA is "nothing new--the same old stuff from conservative students," but adds that the AK-47 threat was serious enough that it was reported to campus security.

"It's been a difficult time the last month. There have been a number of reports," said Boise State Communications Director Frank Zang. "We always encourage our students to contact the police for their own wellness and safebeing."

The Boise Police Department keeps seven full-time officers on campus, according to BPD spokeswoman Lynn Hightower. She says those officers have not received a notably increased number of reports of hate-crime or harassment incidents of late, aside from the alleged attack.

But Whitney Johnson, vice president of the campus group Organization for Gender Equality in Education, said that from her group's perspective, most of the recent incidents haven't been reported.

"There have been a lot of threats to people I know, who haven't been willing to come forward," she told BW. Likewise, Howard also says "a couple of students" he knows have been subject to harassing phone calls and threats.

The student these groups point to as their primary public instigator is Jonathon Sawmiller, a student senator, head of the Boise State College Republicans and a regular editorial contributor to the student newspaper, The Arbiter. Sawmiller first made waves in April, when he wrote an editorial entitled "BSU Immigration March Sponsored By Racist Organization." In it, he cited MEChA's origins as a militant separatist group in the 1960s, calling the group "racist Neo-Nazis," and criticized the university for "funding organizations that call for the overthrow of America."

At an Associated Students of Boise State University (ASBSU) meeting later that month, members of MEChA, other student leaders and representatives from other student organizations called on Sawmiller to apologize for his remarks, which he refused to do. In a response editorial, Martinez called Sawmiller out for what he described as "blatantly racist views."

"The Hitler youth has not disappeared, just evolved," Martinez wrote.

Sawmiller told BW that he wasn't surprised by the negative responses to his editorial, but was surprised by their intensity-- he claims a BGLAD member threatened to stalk him. The student was quoted by The Arbiter as telling Sawmiller at an ASBSU meeting, "If you want a war on your hands, you'll get one."

"I write from a conservative viewpoint, and I make no apology for that," the 21-year-old Sawmiller said. "There are plenty of issues where [student organizations] simply have to agree to disagree, and continue getting along with each other. But a lot of people don't seem to agree with that."

Cut to autumn, and not much has changed. But for the first few weeks of the fall semester, Sawmiller was actually at war, serving as a chemical weapons specialist in Iraq for the Idaho Air National Guard. While he was gone, he was removed from office as an ASBSU senator, an action that his supporters said was politically motivated and illegal. Senate Pro Tempore Greg Wilson even resigned from his post in protest.

"It was surprisingly nice and calm at the start of the semester," BGLAD's Howard said. "But then, a week after Sawmiller got back from Iraq, the first set of articles got written and the first set of posters went up."

Sawmiller's first big hit this fall, in the November 6 Arbiter, was titled "Protect Marriage From Violence--Vote Yes on HJR2." In it, he called on voters to support the constitutional amendment banning same-sex unions, and cited statistics claiming that partners in same-sex relationships are more prone to domestic abuse, mental illness and suicide. The measure passed on November 7.

The poster Howard mentions--which wasn't approved by ASBSU, as is required for student organizations--was placed on campus by the College Republicans to support "Freedom Week," a commemoration of the fall of the Berlin Wall sponsored by a national conservative student organization. The poster included drawings of Che Guevara and Ronald Reagan under the title, "Who is the real revolutionary?" It labeled Guevara a "murderer," saying "his ideology murdered 100,000,000 people." Reagan, on the other hand, is identified as a "liberator," with the caption, "His ideology freed 425,574,817 people."

In response, students from BGLAD, the Boise State Cultural Center and other organizations again packed an ASBSU meeting, hoping to combat what was again being called "hate" from the conservative student. Later in the same week, a new unauthorized poster--this time, from an anonymous source--was posted around campus. On this poster, under the title "Abuse of Power," were two pictures. One showed Adolf Hitler, with the quotes "dirty Jews" and "His ideology cost 6 million lives." The other showed Sawmiller in his military fatigues, with the quotes, "Dirty illegal alien," and, "What will his ideology cost our students at Boise State?"

(Sawmiller had been quoted as using the term "dirty illegal aliens" in his April Arbiter editorial, although the opinion editor admitted in a correction that a staff member had added the term "dirty" independent of the author.)

The rally that was called after the reported Greenbelt incident drew hundreds of students. Speakers like the Organization for Gender Equality in Education's Johnson addressed the "extreme hate" on campus.

"You can't sum it up to this one incident," Johnson told BW. "I think it's getting worse, and it's going to get worse unless people step up and do something."

ASBSU president Wyatt Parke decided to use his veto power to cancel Freedom Week, telling The Arbiter he "didn't feel like I could endorse a week that had gone so awry."

Sawmiller told BW Parke's decision was shortsighted, and said he sought in vain to convince the student senate to override the veto.

"[The reported attack] definitely brought attention to hate action across campus," Sawmiller told BW. "But the only gay-bashing on campus anyone could find was my article telling people to vote yes on HJR2. The point of the article was expressing political ideology, telling people to vote. It wasn't endorsing or propagating violence."

For the time being, Sawmiller remains both in office and on The Arbiter's masthead. His opponents remain steadfast in their belief that his written opinions stretch the boundary between protected free speech and inflammatory hate speech. Several of Sawmiller's fellow senators recently put this sentiment into print: They drafted a bill that, if passed, would dictate that "a senator of ASBSU may not work, intern, or be actively involved in organizations or student newspapers that create an atmosphere where students do not feel represented."

Students on both sides of the fence say they'll take their concerns to a college administration which has thus far been largely unresponsive. On December 4, Boise State University President Bob Kustra hosts a roundtable discussion. All student groups are invited to the meeting, which occurs once per semester.

"There are some very unfortunate things that happened, there's no denying that, but the truth of any character, whether it's an institution or individual, is how you choose to deal with it," said James Maguire, associate vice president for campus planning and facilities. "And I think we're doing very well in that regard.

"One of the things that we never want to be in is a paternalistic role," Maguire said. "The students don't want that, and we definitely don't want that."

Howard said if he attends the meeting, he would like to specifically address campus safety, by proposing a campuswide camera surveillance system on hallways and walkways as a deterrent to threats and attacks.

"I also know that students would like to see more transparency in government," he said. "We have an administration that says, 'We're working on it,' and then they never tell us what they're doing."

If given the opportunity to voice his concerns to Kustra, Sawmiller said he would raise concerns about faculty "taking one side of the political aisle" when getting involved in student affairs. He points not only to the "Hitler Youth" editorial from last semester, but also to an editorial in a recent issue of The Arbiter by Mike Esposito, Boise State assistant director of student activities, who wrote that he was "sick of making life 'comfortable' for those who hate, be they students or staff."

"He's directly in charge of over 200 student organizations, including the organizations he bashed in the article," Sawmiller said. "When people have a professional relationship to organizations, how far are they allowed to go in acting against those organizations?"

Also adding to this already heated debate in the near future will be a "campus climate study" that the university undertook last year, but has yet to release. According to Zang, the online survey was arranged by a 21-member committee of students, faculty and staff members, and invitations to participate were sent out via e-mail to all Boise State students and employees.

"We asked people to share their views on equality or inequality in categories such as age, faith, gender and ethnicity," Zang says. "It's a particularly thorough look at a timely subject, and it will result in recommendations and actions that may be taken by the administration." Zang said the committee is currently "finishing up" the study, which should be released by the end of the year.

"Everybody's kind of holding on with bated breath to see what's going to come of it," says Martinez, who says he was involved in the formation of the study. He added, however, that students looking for sweeping action from the administration in the wake of the report should take some initiative on their own as well.

"I think [the administration is] working hard, I really do," he said. "As administrators, they can say all the politically correct things, but the students have to lead this and work for change. We, as faculty and advisers, are just that--advisers. This really has to be led by students."

Neither Zang nor Martinez said they could give BW a preview of the study's findings. But BGLAD's Howard said he had talked with some of the organizers of the study, and that he wasn't expecting an encouraging message.

"I've been told that the survey doesn't make us look very safe," Howard said.

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