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Jewish group charges Kupchella won't call graffiti image a swastika

GRAND FORKS -- Members of the University of North Dakota's Jewish Student Organization charged Thursday that the school's president, Charles Kupchella, equivocated when presented with a cell phone photo of a swastika drawn in a stairwell of the West Residence Hall on campus.

According to student Martin Rottler and JSO faculty advisor Jack Weinstein, Kupchella told the group he couldn't be sure that the image they showed him was a swastika and would not use the word swastika for the remainder of the meeting.

Kupchella also declined to call the image a swastika in a Herald interview later Thursday evening, saying he was unwilling to say whether the image was or was not a swastika because he does not want to get ahead of investigations by UND police and Residence Services.

He said he's only received limited briefings on the West Hall incident, not enough to speak extensively about it. He said he believed the JSO members were impatient for him to make decisions that are better left to trained investigators and, perhaps, the criminal justice system.

A cell phone photo of the West Hall graffiti shows a standard swastika design drawn in blue marker, but with the top facing left rather than right as in the Nazi swastika. The area around the figure is scribbled out with lighter marks.

"President Kupchella not only refused to acknowledge it was a hate crime, he refused to acknowledge it was a swastika," Weinstein said of the meeting. "He saw the photos and he wouldn't even say the word out loud.

"As a teacher, the worst thing about it was to watch these students who felt empowered and excited to meet the president because they thought something would get done, to watch them deflate as they realized they were talking to a brick wall. That nothing they could say would make him feel for their situation. It was one of the most heart-wrenching things I've seen in my teaching career."

The swastika appeared in February in the West Hall stairwell, frightening Jewish student Scott Lebovitz, who said he was the subject of numerous anti-Semitic taunts by other students on the dorm floor during the course of several months.

The following month, some students wrote "Scott Lebovitz is a Jew" in ice cream on the dorm elevator. After a confrontation April 11 with one of the students, who he described as the ringleader, Lebovitz said he feared for his safety and left the dorm to move into a vacant room in his fraternity house.

Lebovitz asked not to be identified by name when these events were first reported in Thursday's Herald, but said later he decided he should not allow himself to be intimidated.

Kupchella said Thursday he understands JSO members would like the investigation to proceed more quickly, but he is unwilling to rush it. "I had a long conversation with them, about an hour and a half, and it's almost impossible to summarize that in a few sound bites," Kupchella said. "I don't even have a memory of them asking me 'does this look like a swastika to you?' What I told them is there's an investigation of the incident ongoing, and I'm sorry they felt like it was taking way too long."

When asked again whether the image in the cell phone photo was a swastika, Kupchella said he would not comment on it and suggested the Herald publish the photo and let readers decide.

"What I said (to JSO) is I'm not about to make any declarative statements about anything," he said, "not specifically about the drawing, but about the whole case."

Kupchella did issue a statement Wednesday in which he referred to the West Hall graffiti and two other recent occurrences of racially-charged graffiti as "hate incidents" and called them "mindless and abhorrent."

The first of those other events was in February when a number of racial slurs were found drawn in Brannon Hall. The other occurred this weekend when two swastikas were found drawn in Noren Hall.

UND Police Chief Duane Czapiewski said his office hopes to complete its investigation of the West Hall events this evening and to forward a report to the State's Attorney's Office by the middle of next week for possible criminal prosecution and to determine whether the incidents constitute a hate crime. Czapiewski has regularly used the tern swastika to de-scribe the image found in West Hall.

Czapiewski said his office has very little experience with such investigations and so will have to seek significant guidance from the state's attorney's office.

UND police have no strong leads in the Brannon Hall or Noren Hall graffiti cases, he said.

UND Police forwarded an earlier report on the West Hall incidents to UND Residence Services, which is conducting an internal investigation. Residence Services Director Judy Sargent has so far declined to speak about the investigation, but said Thursday night she's prepared a packet of information about the investigation and UND housing policy that university relations will distribute to media today.

The Grand Forks Herald and The Dickinson Press are both owned by Forum Communications Co.