A hate crime investigation is underway at a New England university, after a Latin phrase from the Crusades was written inside the student center at the University of Southern Maine’s Portland campus.
The graffiti read "Deus Vult," which is a phrase picked up by the alt-right movement as an anti-Muslim phrase.
"A lot of Muslims were killed during [the Crusades], so it wasn’t just hateful speech, it was threatening speech," said Halima Noor, Vice President of USM’s Muslim Student Association.
USM officials say the vandalism is being investigated as both a campus security concern and student conduct violation. Their findings may be forwarded to the Attorney Generals’ office, if it is determined to be a hate crime.
"We’re treating this with the highest priority," said Bob Stein, USM Executive Director of Public Affairs. "We have zero tolerance for this kind of behavior."
Students packed a public meeting with the Student Senate on Friday afternoon, both upset by the graffiti, and by the way the student leaders handled it.
Messages exchanged between Executive Board members show that student senators debated about reporting the graffiti.
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Some of the student leaders admitted to knowing who committed the vandalism, adding that the student was a friend. They suggested cleaning up the graffiti, and not reporting it to police.
The messages included pig emojis and jokes about imposing Sharia law – content some Muslim students called offensive, and "Islamphobic" at the senate meeting.
"There needs to be some sort of racial, religious training so people understand these types of things should never occur," said Noor.
Two student senators resigned as a result of the messages: Benjamin Bussiere and Derrick Stanley.
"My comments were inappropriate and I want to sincerely apologize," said Bussiere in the meeting. When he announced he would be resigning, the audience cheered.
Bussiere added that the student responsible for the graffiti will be held accountable, because classmates have passed along his name to police.
USM officials said the incident has elevated tension on campus, but could serve as a learning experience.
"Sometimes it’s the most serious and difficult issues that move the university forward," said Stein.