Guilford students charge administration with cover-up
Students from Guilford College who gathered at an African-American church in east Greensboro on Feb. 6 for a forum about a recent alleged assault against three international students from Palestine described a campus climate in which frequent incidents of sexual assault and violence are hidden by an administration averse to bad publicity.
Upwards of 75 people, including at least a dozen camerapersons and reporters, attended the meeting, which was arranged by the steering committee of the Greensboro Truth and Community Reconciliation Project and held at Genesis Baptist Church. The truth project was responsible for initiating a citizens’ review of the 1979 Klan-Nazi shootings in Morningside Homes, which resulted in the deaths of five Communist Workers Party activists.
The Rev. Nelson Johnson, a moderator of the forum and a survivor of the 1979 shootings, drew parallels between the community’s response to the recent Guilford College incident and the response to the slaying of his comrades, while students leveled pointed questions to Lt. Brian James about the Greensboro Police Department’s decision six days earlier to suspend its investigation of the alleged assault.
“We were so counting on the Greensboro Police Department to go above and beyond,” said Bryan Dellinger, a continuing education student who has taken part in efforts to call attention to the Jan. 20 altercation. Guilford students Faris Khader and Osama Sabbah, along with Omar Awartani, a visitor from NC State University, were reportedly beaten by members of the football team and subjected to ethnic slurs. The three later received hospital care, and reportedly sustained concussions and other injuries. “We’re begging and asking and pleading with you to do some more investigating.”
James said the police investigation was hobbled because the department did not learn of the incident until 7:30 p.m. on Jan. 21, approximately 43 hours after the fact.
“This happened on January twentieth. Why are they just now calling us?” James asked. “When this incident happened I wish we had been called that night. We would have done a much better investigation. This is in no way to knock Guilford security…. As time goes on, statements are lost, evidence is lost, memory is lost.”
Awartani said in an interview with YES! Weekly that the attack was unprovoked, and that he did nothing to defend himself. Witnesses have said that one or two of the other Palestinian students pulled off their belts to defend themselves.
A parent of one of the football players charged with assault and ethnic intimidation, Barbara Barnette of Semora, declined to comment to YES! Weekly on Feb. 7 other than to say, “I feel [my son]’s been wrongly accused.” Chris Barnette’s lawyer, Marc Tyrey added: “I think I would just say this case ought to be played out in a court of law and not in the media or press.”
During the forum James discussed police decisions at several intervals of the department’s suspended investigation. The lieutenant said:
Police went to campus, talked to campus security personnel and reviewed statements taken from participants and witnesses.
“There are many people who claimed to be at the same place at the same time that gave totally different statements,” he said, later adding that “the football players are now saying the Palestinian students are the aggressors so we’ve got to look at the flip side of that.”
The police interviewed the three Palestinian students after they filed complaints at the Guilford County magistrate’s office. The interviews did not bring to light any new information that was not contained in the arrest warrants, and the alleged victims did not identify additional perpetrators other than the six who were charged.
The police did not interview the football players who were charged with assault and ethnic intimidation. “If someone identifies himself as the victim we start by interviewing them,” James told an individual who asked why the department did not return calls from football players asking to give statements to the police. “We can’t have an incident with two sets of victims. We can’t investigate crimes that way.”
The police were told that there were approximately 50 witnesses at the scene. “When you say, ‘Go out and seek these people out,'” James said, “that’s not as easy as it sounds.”
The case could have serious repercussions for the accused. “We’re talking about putting a charge on someone’s record,” he said. “They have to go out and look for a job. That’s for anyone, not just a student.”
James added that he was not pleased about the unfavorable publicity the incident has brought the city.
“I’m born and bred in Greensboro, North Carolina,” he said. “I graduated from A&T. I don’t really care for the national media calling to ask about Guilford College.”
Lewis Pitts, a lawyer for Legal Aid of North Carolina who is not professionally involved in the case, charged that James’ description of the police’s response reveals a double standard and a departure from typical police practices.
“One: He said, ‘We didn’t interview the defendants.’ They love to get confessions from defendants,” Pitts said. “Two: He said, ‘We don’t go look for witnesses. We wait for them to come to us.’ Is that really the case? Three: This zero-out phenomenon. We hear two different sides of the story and we can’t go any further? And, four – this really made me feel faint. It was the ‘chamber of commerce’ line: ‘The national media calls and it makes us look bad.'”
Johnson, who has been the target of widespread and longstanding accusations that he intentionally incited the Klan and Nazis to violence for the purpose of enhancing his own stature, said he was particularly disturbed by the police’s apparent inclination to treat the allegations of both sides with equal weight.
“You’re saying you’re hearing one person saying one thing and another saying another thing, and the two things cancel each other out,” he said. “However that was meant, that is an extremely painful thing to hear.”
Several students said they were more critical of the college administration than the police.
Dellinger said three prospects for the football team raped a female student-athlete in a past incident, and Dellinger’s wife, then the head coach of the women’s volleyball team, lost her job as a result of her efforts to spur the administration to action.
“When I addressed it with Aaron Fetrow, I said, ‘Why isn’t there an investigation?'” Dellinger said. “He said, ‘I can tell you this: those students won’t be coming here.’ If I was the father of that girl, I think I’d want something more than that done.
“The bottom line is it’s all about the money [for the administration],” he added. “For the truth to come out for Guilford it’s going to cost some money. Money that’s coming in is not going to be coming in.”
Spokesman Nic Brown disputed the notion in an interview the following day that Guilford College’s campus is unsafe and that the administration tries to sweep problems under the rug.
“I think at college campuses where young people and alcohol are involved unfortunate incidents can occur,” he said. “I would take issue with the assertion that Guilford College has a high rate of rapes or assaults that we are hiding from the community.”
Brown added that he was unable to comment on the circumstances of the women’s volleyball coach’s departure or the alleged rape.
“The college has to protect the students’ rights even to the point where we can’t defend ourselves against some comments like that,” he said.
Brown said he was unaware of any discussion among administrators about the possibility of revisiting the college’s longstanding practice of minimizing calls to the police – both for the purpose of bringing situations under control and investigating possible crimes.
“It’s my understanding that if Guilford security needs the police they call them,” he said. “What the Greensboro police and Guilford security is trying to do is to not have them called to respond to every incident.”
At the end of the forum, lawyer Amiel Rossabi, who represents the three Palestinian students, suggested a solution to the recent alleged assault that could be considered a different track from the aggressive criminal investigation favored by some students.
“I want to suggest an opportunity for a resolution that is fair to all,” he said. “We want a representative of each of the boys who was involved in this incident to be here – the Palestinian students and the football players – parents or guardians. I will tell you that is a step that is being pursued…. I ask you to give this a chance.”
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