Towson University is trying to reassure its student population and address the concerns of national civil rights groups after a pro-white race student group recently announced it would conduct crime-watching patrols at night.
Matthew Heimbach, a Towson senior and founder of the White Student Union, made headlines across the country earlier this week for the patrols, which he said were in response to a spike in black-on-white crime. Heimbach said the patrol members would be unarmed except for flashlights and pepper spray, though he had previously told Towson's student newspaper his members have gotten firearms training.
Towson officials, in a statement, said they would be increasing police patrols at night to ensure "the entire campus community continues to feel safe and comfortable."
The school also says the White Student Union is not an officially recognized group, as they do not have a faculty sponsor nor have the required number of members. In an email that went out to the university community Wednesday, university officials said that they are monitoring the student organization and that the campus is one of the safest in the state university system, with violent crime on the wane.
"It is important for the campus community to know that your concerns regarding activities of the 'White Student Union' which has been in the news again, are shared by the University Administration," said the email, which was signed by Deb Moriarty, the vice president for student affairs, and Bernie Gerst, the chief of police.
"Freedom of speech, expression and association are core constitutional rights that protect all groups, including the WSU, as long as they abide by the law," the email said.
The Baltimore chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, a civil rights group, has requested a meeting with university leaders regarding the patrols. The Rev. Cortly "C.D." Witherspoon Sr., president of the chapter, wrote in a letter to Towson officials that he was "very concerned" about the safety of Towson's black students and staff.
"We are also concerned about campus morale, and the contentious culture and environment this matter has the potential to create," he wrote.
In an interview, Witherspoon said he has contacted the FBI to ensure authorities are aware of the WSU's plans. He said he wants to meet with the university administration to address race relations on campus in general, and ask officials why, if the student group is not officially recognized, the university allowed them to have a website hosted by the college.
Witherspoon said that when he heard of the student group's plans, he was "just completely taken aback and floored." The night patrols were reminiscent of a scary period in black history.
"I think about night-riders," he said, a reference to the Ku Klux Klan's violent mobs. "I think about lynchings ... it took place in the night."
A Towson spokeswoman said the university has not yet had time to respond to Witherspoon but shared his concerns about student safety.
Heimbach said comparisons to the KKK were "insulting and shows a double standard." He said his group has denounced hate groups.
"The idea is that we're going to be a community outreach program for everyone, not just white students," he said. "We're not a lynch mob."
Earlier this month the group caused a stir at the Conservative Political Action Conference when a man identifying himself as a member of the White Student Union, Scott Terry, advocated for segregation and downplayed the problem of slavery. The university says he is not a student at Towson and never has been.
twitter.com/cwellssunCopyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun