One confirmed hate crime coupled with previous alleged attacks similar in nature are leading some Shepherd University students to feel unsafe on campus.
Twenty-one-year-old Tony Sampson was assaulted by two males in the H parking lot on Dec. 3. Sampson said he was pushed to the ground and verbally abused for nearly two minutes until headlights caused the assailants to scatter. Homophobic slurs verbalized during the attack led the incident to be termed a hate crime by the Shepherd University Police Department.
"Stereotypically, I look like a lesbian," Sampson said.
Born female, the SU junior identifies as transgender and is in the process of transitioning to male. Sampson said he believes he was targeted as a well-known figure of Shepherd's Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender community.
"I am out and I don't shy away from being out," he said.
Student Nicholas Etheridge, president of Allies - the university's gay-straight alliance organization - said the group has since been working with SUPD to identify any similar instances.
"I've been really appreciative that they have been working with us," Etheridge said of SUPD, citing University Police Chief John McAvoy. "However, I do think there needs to be some sort of official statement (from the university) as to what has actually happened."
Sampson echoed agreement.
"I do feel like the Shepherd University Police Department has done all they can. But I feel like administration-wise, the university does not support us," Sampson said. "I just feel like they care more about their image. They really just want this to go away, it's so close to winter break ... I think they're just waiting for it to go away."
According to Director of University Communications Valerie Owens, student services issued a safety reminder via email to the student body Dec. 4; though a specific incident was not cited.
"We are at that time of the year when the days are shorter and it gets dark very early. Shepherd University Police Department wants to remind all students, faculty and staff of some very important and basic safety tips," the email stated.
Further detailing safety guidelines, the email served as the university's proper protocol in the situation, Owens said. Incident specifics, she said, are not disclosed in crime-related situations of the like.
"There is a lot of resentment forming towards the university," Etheridge said. "I think they need to recognize that there was a hate-crime."
A similar alleged assault occurred about a month ago, according to a student who wished to remain anonymous, leaving one woman with a concussion and broken ribs. The defining characteristics of both attacks include homophobic slurs and accosts from behind.
"My biggest concern is these things have a tendency to escalate," the student said. "What happens when someone tries to fight back?"
The university's failure to inform the campus population of the attacks, the student said, only serves to facilitate the perpetrators.
"It will enable them to believe that this game that they are playing is safe to play," the student said.
Murmurings on campus, according to all three students interviewed, indicate a third assault has occurred.
"To date, the Shepherd University Police Department has received one, single, report of an incident of a hate-bias physical assault on a student, on December 3. The University did not determine that the one report of a hate-bias assault reflected an ongoing threat to the campus community, so no safety alert to the campus was made ... Since the December 3 incident, which is being investigated as a hate-bias crime, campus police officers have intensified campus patrol activity," Owens said in a statement after being contacted by The Journal.
Etheridge, also a member of the university's multi-culture leadership team, said he was not quick to call the first incident a hate crime until the second assault against Sampson occurred.
"In recent years we all have sort of viewed this university as being really safe and open. So this is a big thing that people are getting really riled up about," Etheridge said. "There have not been physical assaults in recent years. In general this a pretty safe (university) for gender and sexual minorities."
The university, after being contacted by The Journal, issued a second campus-wide email regarding student concerns Wednesday - more than a week later.
"On Monday, December 3, 2012, at approximately 5:20 p.m. a student was a victim of an assault in the H parking lot near Burkhart Hall (West Woods). The student was pushed to the ground by two male assailants. Based on words used by the perpetrators during this attack, this disturbing incident is being investigated as a hate crime by the Shepherd University Police Department ... The facts conveyed to SUPD did not clearly suggest that the campus community at large or any specific persons or groups were facing an ongoing threat," stated the email, issued by Dr. Thomas Segar, vice president for student affairs. "There is a perception among the students I have talked to that at least three hate crime incidents have occurred within the past four weeks ... If other assaults have occurred with a hate crime connotation, it is vitally important that this information be reported to University Police as soon as possible."
The email further detailed resources for students to contact.
"I am working closely with the SUPD to keep our students informed of any safety concerns in the future," Segar said in the email. "In addition, I am meeting with student groups the first week we return from winter break,"
For Sampson, the university's correspondence comes as too little, too late.
"It wasn't until they started feeling the heat that something was sent out that there were assaults happening," Sampson said. "I feel like that was putting the students at risk."
The atmosphere on campus, Sampson said, has seemed hostile since a LGBT male student ran for homecoming queen in October.
"Since then it has seemed the community has been looked down on," Sampson said of the university's LGBT population.
Sampson, of Charleston, said he chose to attend the university based on its "liberal views."
"Me, I don't have a very (good) home life when it comes to LGBT stuff," Sampson said. "I'm not welcome home much because of my identity. Shepherd was my safe place and now I don't feel it's as safe as it was."
University Police Chief John McAvoy did not return phone calls by press time.