Hate crime assault charges reduced: Additional witness testimony indicates slur was not racially charged

Posted by Alex Brehm & Jean-Ann Kubler

At approximately 5:30 a.m on Dec. 18, 2010, four Skidmore students were charged with the assault of a Saratoga man at Compton's Restaurant on Broadway.

Though one student, Justin Tavarez '13, was originally charged with a felony hate crime assault, criminal possession of a weapon and criminal mischief, on Feb. 1 he pleaded guilty in exchange for a reduced charge.

In the spring Tavarez will face sentencing for third-degree assault, a misdemeanor.

The other three students, Sakhile Sithole '13, Elijah Johnston '14 and Korvin Vicente '13, were all charged with third-degree assault.

According to the Saratoga Police Department, the four students allegedly targeted two men eating together at the diner, one white and one black, with racial slurs.

Tavarez allegedly smashed a plate over the white customer's head, and punched and kicked him, according to witnesses.

The hate crime charges were dropped when new witness testimony confirmed that the use of the word "nigger" was not racially charged.

The original accusation of a hate crime prompted strong responses from the Saratoga and Skidmore communities.

Acting President Susan Kress pointed out in a campus-wide email, and again in an interview, that comments on websites and discussion boards were posted that were highly critical of students and college programs.

In her email to the campus, Kress reminded readers that the accused were to be presumed innocent until proven guilty of the alleged hate crime.

According to Dean of Student Affairs Rochelle Calhoun, when a student is charged with a felony, it has been college practice to provisionally suspend the student until the resolution of the charge in court.

Afterward, the student may be subject to a hearing before the school Integrity Board.

When a student is charged with a misdemeanor, the student is more commonly allowed to remain on campus while the charges are resolved in court, but this case may vary, Calhoun said.

Students also responded to the alleged biased nature of the assault. Danny Pforte '13 published a letter in the Saratogian critical of the nature of the initial report of the incident.

Similar to Kress, Pforte pointed out issues of bias.

In his letter, Pforte argued that the paper reinforced racial and urban stereotypes with the line, "the four men charged with assault are all black or Hispanic," and listing three of the students as being from New York City.

To address town-gown relations in the wake of the incident and in general, Pforte is planning a public dialogue between leaders of the city and leaders of the college.

Members of Campus Safety declined to comment for this article.

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