Four students confess to hanging Obama effigy

Four students confess to hanging Obama effigy »Play Video

NEWBERG, Ore. - Four George Fox University students have confessed to hanging a cardboard cutout of Sen. Barack Obama from a tree on the campus last week, university officials announced Tuesday.

The university's Office of Student Life identified the students involved late last week and completed a disciplinary hearing, officials said. 

The four students were punished with public service and immediate long-term suspensions, though a school spokesman said federal privacy laws prevent him from saying how long the suspensions would last and who the students were.

"Regardless of the students' intent, the image of a black man hung from a tree is one of the most hurtful symbols of racism in American history," said Brad Lau, vice president of student life, in a press release. "Displays such as this have no place on a campus that is dedicated to living out the teachings of Jesus."

The effigy was discovered about  7 a.m. on Sept. 23 and was quickly removed. It was tied to the tree with fishing line around the neck and accompanied by a message referring to a minority student scholarship program called "Act Six." The sign read, "Act Six reject."

The school has 17 students in the Act Six program, named for the New Testament book of Acts. Participants receive full scholarships and are selected on the basis of leadership potential.

Local prosecutors and police have said no state law was broken. The FBI opened an investigation, looking into possible civil rights violations.

University President Robin Baker announced the results of the investigation to the George Fox campus Tuesday afternoon.

The university, Portland City Young Life and the Act Six program will host a forum for the Portland community to discuss the incident and racial reconciliation issues on Friday at 4 p.m. at Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church.

- The Associated Press contributed to this report

The university on Tuesday released this statement on the incident:

As an institution rooted in the Quaker tradition and dedicated to bringing real and positive change to our culture by living out the teachings of Jesus Christ, we report with great sadness that the incident on September 23 involving the cardboard cutout of Senator Barack Obama was carried out by four students of this university.

The faculty, staff and students of George Fox University have worked extremely hard to develop a learning community that represents the diversity of God’s people. Act Six — a leadership and scholarship initiative designed to bring students from diverse communities to campus — was one effort toward this end. Another effort is our “Blueprint for Diversity,” which includes not only enrolling a racially and ethnically diverse student body, but also cultivating staff and faculty who are persons of color. As part of this plan, every staff and faculty member participates in diversity training. We want the world to know that we take diversity and racial reconciliation very seriously and that this abhorrent act that was senselessly carried out by a few students does not in any way reflect the commitments and beliefs of this institution. There is no excuse for this behavior.

The university took immediate action once the students were identified. After an internal judicial process, there were several disciplinary measures taken — up to and including immediate long-term suspension from the university. Investigations are still ongoing by federal law enforcement to determine if any federal civil rights laws have been broken. The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) prohibits the university from making further comments as to the identities of the students, their involvement in the incident, or the specific sanctions against them.

In response to this incident, the president is forming an advisory council on diversity, a multicultural group of external community members who will help the university address this incident and future diversity issues. Darlene Ortega, a judge on the Oregon Court of Appeals and a George Fox alumna, will chair the group. In addition, the university will be holding talkback sessions on campus beginning Sept. 30 and in the community on Oct. 3 at Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church in Portland at 4 p.m.

Tuesday night, the university’s Board of Trustees reemphasized its commitment to the “Blueprint for Diversity” and to the Act Six program. Since December, the university has been in the process of developing a strategic plan that includes cross-cultural dialogue and issues of diversity as a focus of its educational efforts. Joel Perez, dean of transitions and inclusion, will spearhead these initiatives. The university’s faculty has also reaffirmed its support for the Act Six program and will be working diligently to examine our curriculum to see how we can create new opportunities for dialogue around issues of race and diversity.

The student and residence life staff will also develop new efforts in its co-curriculum to educate and engage students in serious conversation about issues of race. And the Associated Student Community, who also reaffirmed its commitment to the Act Six program, plans to develop strategies to help engage students in peer-to-peer dialogues about race and cultural issues.

Despite its many diversity efforts, the university recognizes that it still has more work to do in this area and looks forward to partnering with community leaders from diverse backgrounds to move forward. Together, our goal is to produce a university that truly reflects the love of Jesus and a commitment to racial reconciliation.