Univ. of Okla. student suspended for 'lynching' hate texts sent to Penn black freshmen

FBI, campus police investigating; more students may be involved

20161112_inq_ppenn12-a
Rosario Jaime, a Penn graduate student from California, signs the "wall of solidarity" sponsored by the United Minority Council.

University of Pennsylvania officials said Saturday that a student from the University of Oklahoma has been suspended -- and more people may be involved -- for targeting Penn black freshmen with racist hate messages in a cell phone text-messaging app under the group name "N- Lynching."

Penn President Amy Gutmann said her counterpart at the University of Oklahoma, David Boren, had called her to report the temporary suspension of the student, who was not named. The suspension came early in an investigation by the FBI and campus police at both universities. 

"Penn Police will continue to work with the FBI and University of Oklahoma Police in completing the investigation, as additional individuals may be involved," Gutmann said.

"The University of Oklahoma has made it clear that we will not tolerate racism or hate speech that constitutes a threat to our campus or others," said Boren, president of that university. "It would appear this matter did not originate at the University of Oklahoma, but started elsewhere," he said.  

Penn's campus was thrown into an upheaval of shock and disgust Friday when the first racist and violent messages began to appear on student cell phones via the app GroupMe, popular with college students and others. The messages came from a person or people using the name “Daddy Trump.” “Heil Trump” also was written in the messages by the group, calling itself "MudMen."

Officials said the "MudMen" group appeared to be based in Oklahoma.

Penn officials decried the messages as “utterly repugnant” and “simply deplorable,” and said they were unsure how the group accessed students’ accounts. They said the university had asked the FBI to help Penn police and information security officials identify the perpetrators.

Mayor Kenney called the activity “disgusting behavior” and urged the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations to investigate.

The first message in the GroupMe app was sent at 10 a.m. with the question "Sup N-s," from someone under the alias "Daddy Trump."

A calendar function in the GroupMe app scheduled several "N- Lynchings," including a "daily lynching" for Friday. The group also included references to "SAE." The national fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon is often referred to by that abbreviation. A second message, from someone who posted under the name GORT, said "message Heil Trump."

One posting displayed an old image of a lynching with the note "I love America."

In all, the messages named 161 people, including those who created the group and the students who were targeted. Two students associated with the GroupMe account have Facebook pages indicating one is a student at the University of Oklahoma, while the other is enrolled at Oklahoma State University.

Late Friday evening, Boren called Gutmann and issued a statement saying that one student had been suspended.

One African American student at Penn took to Facebook to share his horrified reaction.

"Quite honestly I just can't stop crying," said the student, who asked for anonymity out of fear for his safety. "I feel sick to my stomach. I don't feel safe.

"Literally, every single black freshman was added," wrote the student, who went to the vice provost's office for support. "I stared an administrator in the eye and literally lost it."

The racism came in a week marred with other homophobic, anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant incidents at Penn and other schools around the region and nation. At Penn, a female student from Massachusetts reported being called an anti-gay slur and another student reported patrons at a campus bar screaming "build that wall" -- a reference to GOP candidate Donald Trump's promise to wall out Mexican immigrants -- early Wednesday when it became evident that Trump had won the election.

Trump is an alumnus of Penn's Wharton School. His daughter Tiffany graduated from Penn in May, double-majoring in sociology and urban studies.

The university said Penn's police and information security staff were trying to locate the exact source of the account so that it can be cut off. Maureen Rush, Penn's vice president for public safety, has reached out to the FBI Cyber Squad for assistance and guidance, said university spokesman Ron Ozio.

"The university is taking every step possible to address both the source of the racist material and the impact it has had on black students on campus," Ozio said.

As night fell, about 20 Penn medical students gathered on Locust Walk to silently protest the postings and support the targeted students.

Shelley Thomas, 27, a second-year medical student who is African American, held a hand-lettered sign above her head saying "Call Me a N- to My Face." Others carried "Black Lives Matter" signs.

"I am absolutely disgusted," said Thomas. "I'm surprised that I'm shocked but with all the hate crimes that have been happening over the last two days in response to Trump's election ... I was not expecting it in Philadelphia to this degree. And I was not expecting it on a campus like Penn."

Amanda Labora, 27, also a second-year med student and one who holds dual citizenship in the United States and Mexico, said she came out to support the black students.

"I wanted them to know that medical students stand with them, that Latinos stand with them, that we're all in this together and they are not alone," she said.

Ajjit Narayanan, 19, a sophomore urban studies and economics major, was tending the "wall of solidarity" sponsored by the United Minority Council - long white planks on the grass where students have written messages since Trump's election. Narayanan said he was born in India, came to this country at the age of 2, and became a U.S. citizen at the age of 13.

"It's really an example of the vile racism that black students in particular face on this campus," he said, "and we're just horrified that the election of Trump has allowed such bigotry to spread on this campus."

Syra Ortiz-Blanes, 21, a senior history and creative writing major, was born and raised in Puerto Rico. "I'm worried because I have never seen this type of racism by my peers," she said.

Earlier in the afternoon, Gutmann and top Penn administrators issued a statement calling the attacks "deplorable."

"This is absolutely vile material and completely offensive to everyone on our campus," she said. "We are both angry and saddened that it was directed to our students or to anyone. The people responsible for this are reprehensible. We have increased campus safety and are reaching out to support the affected students in every way we can, and want them to know that the entire Penn community stands with them."

She called the GroupMe racism "profoundly inimical to what we stand for as a university. We will take every step possible to counteract its appalling bias. And we all stand together in solidarity with our Black students who have been so terribly targeted."

The incident came amid a racist backlash in schools and communities around the country following Trump's election. The Associated Press tallied at least 20 such incidents at schools and universities since Election Day, including a Muslim engineering student at the University of New Mexico who reported that a man attempted to snatch off her hijab Tuesday while she was studying.

Tunmise Fawole, a Penn student and co-chair of UMOJA, a student group for members of the African diaspora at Penn, said whoever targeted the Penn students must have had access to the Penn Class of 2020 Facebook group.

"This is not an isolated incident, this is a reaction to the candidate that won," she said. Fawole added that top-level administrators from the university had been very cooperative, and that they were trying to work with the GroupMe messaging service to see what legal action can be taken.

"The currents of his messages are rippling through the country," said Brittany Brown, 22, a black LGBTQ student at Penn. "That's the problem. I don't have a problem with Republicans or conservatives. And I have a lot of friends who are much more liberal than me. This isn't about that. This is about being a decent human being."

While other local campuses have not reported similar attacks, a group of student leaders from Penn, St. Joseph's, La Salle and Drexel Universities will meet Saturday to discuss recent events on campuses in the wake of the election.

"This meeting was planned well in advance, but we were not foreseeing this type of student response," said Beckett Woodworth, student body president at La Salle.

Meanwhile, student groups, academic leaders and city officials condemned the attacks and issued statements of support for the black students.

"We stand in solidarity with students of color and are here with you to combat this kind of prejudice," wrote Penn Hillel. "We send our love and prayers of peace to the students who were targeted today."

The Penn chapter of SAE also denounced the messages and said "racism has no place in our chapter or in the Penn community. We are shocked, horrified and enraged by these attacks on members of our community."

Beth Wenger, chair of Penn's history department, emailed students saying, "As historians, we know too well the personal and social consequences of bigotry. As a department, we remain committed to fostering respect for all throughout the Penn community and denounce these acts of hate in the strongest terms."

Kenney added his condemnation.

"It is heartbreaking to see this type of activity here in the birthplace of our democracy and the City of Brotherly Love," he wrote.

Chad Dion Lassiter, president of Black Men at the Penn School of Social Work Inc., said he was not surprised by the online assaults on black students because he believes it is part of a pattern of racism that has been prevalent nationally since President Obama took office and is likely to get worse with the election of Trump.

"We really have to find out what is the challenge that white people - to the core - fundamentally have with black people in America. Racism and white supremacist behavior continues to go unchecked," said Lassiter, a national expert on race relations.

"Over the last eight years we have seen attacks on black humanity and black intelligence, from what has been done to the president to what has been done to black students on college campuses to what has happened in Baltimore and Ferguson. So, college campuses are not exempt. We need white students who are racially aware to denounce this type of racial hatred," said Lassiter.

He added that Penn has a history of being proactive in dealing with acts of racism and that he expects that will be the case with this development.

Some students also protested at Franklin Field, and the gates were reportedly closed to students midway through the Penn-Harvard football game, one of the biggest rivalries of the year and also designated as "Senior Night" because it is the last home game of the season.

Before the start of the game, a representative of the Penn band had scrapped the traditional "irreverent toast" that accompanies the playing of the school song "Drink a Highball," and instead asked the crowd to "take a moment to appreciate the person next to you.  A kind word, or a hug."

Penn Athletics issued the following statement about Friday night's football game:

"During the first half of the Penn-Harvard football game, a group of fans approached a gate to Franklin Field without tickets. Penn DPS was on site, and in conjunction with University personnel, a decision was made to temporarily suspend entry into the stadium. We understand that this decision caused some Penn fans, Penn students, and Harvard fans difficulty entering the game, but the safety of the teams and fans of both institutions was our primary consideration. Penn Athletics leadership was in contact with University leadership and DPS throughout the game as is standard practice."

Several other Penn students have reported racist or homophobic incidents on campus since the election.

Rebecca Van Sciver, 21, of Massachusetts, said she was walking home Thursday night near 40th and Walnut Streets when two white men and one white woman caught up with her and one called her a "d-." They continued to taunt her with the gay epithet and laugh at her, she said.

"I'm afraid and I'm a Jewish woman." she said. "It's way too reminiscent."

Mauricio Padilla, 23, said he was at Smokes, a campus bar, at 1 a.m. Wednesday when election results were still being tallied and it appeared Trump would win. Men started screaming, "Build that wall," he said.

At Council Rock North High School in Newtown, Bucks County, police were called to investigate graffiti of swastikas, an anti-gay slur and references to Trump scrawled in school bathrooms. Someone placed a note in the backpack of one Hispanic student, telling her to return to Mexico.

In South Philadelphia the day after the election, swastikas, references to Trump and "Sieg Heil" graffiti were painted on a storefront and elsewhere.

rheilweil@philly.com

215-854-2771

@RebeccaHeilweil

Staff writer Jonathan Tannenwald contributed to this report.