SAN JOSE -- In a strong public rebuke, legislators lashed out Friday at San Jose State leaders in a special hearing on campus, decrying what they called an atmosphere of acceptance of bullying and aggressive behavior.
The special panel investigating campus culture at public universities chided San Jose State leaders and housing officials for their delayed response to the alleged tormenting of a black freshman by his white roommates in a case that generated national outrage and led to misdemeanor hate crime charges.
"For months, these atrocities were kept secret, which I find almost impossible to believe," said Assemblyman Phil Ting, D-San Francisco.
Legislators questioned San Jose State leaders about a culture that made students comfortable in bullying a fellow student and kept others from coming forward. The three-hour hearing came a day after the victim filed a $5 million claim against the university, blaming the dorm adviser and school officials for ignoring "clear" warning signs of the abuse.
"He was in an environment of seven other people and none of them said a mumbling word ..." said Assemblywoman Shirley Weber, D-San Diego, chairwoman of the Select Committee on Campus Climate. "That is a serious cultural problem for students to accept this as normal behavior -- not just the folks who perpetuated the crimes, but those who witnessed it."
Pushed for a response, a top San Jose State administrator acknowledged a climate of "micro-aggressions," such as offensive jokes and insensitive class discussions, that have a corrosive effect.
"I hear them every day," said Bill Nance, the campus vice president for student affairs.
Committee members also asked pointed questions about why school President Mo Qayoumi was not told sooner about the dorm-room incidents.
The question of speaking up, of recognizing a situation, was also on the mind of the San Jose State's own panel looking into the campus climate.
The claim filed Thursday revealed that in a formal roommate behavior agreement that a dorm adviser oversaw, freshman Donald Williams Jr. referred to the bike lock incident as "a lock of shame." That, said former Judge LaDoris Cordell, reinforced her panel's concern that more and better-trained advisers are needed.
After Friday's hearing, legislators also pointed out their concerns with school leaders. What is communicated to a campus leader reflects a university's priorities, Weber said after the hearing. "Surely, if I were president of this campus, I should be aware of something as bad as that," she said. "They say they talk all the time, so the question is, what are you talking about?"
Qayoumi, who was present, gave a brief welcome but didn't have to answer questions; Nance did.
"We were shocked when it happened," Nance said. "It's so counter to the values that we have, the approaches that we take, the work that we do with students."
One student who testified Friday, Latu Tapaatoutai, said she too often saw signs of racism and bias. "I do not think San Jose State, at this moment, is a safe place for students of color," she said. She was among the few dozen people at the hearing, the first of four around the state.
The legislators came to campus a day after Williams filed his claim alleging that the university ignored a sign that "a potentially explosive and dangerous situation was developing in Room 704."
State lawmakers formed the Select Committee on Campus Climate in January in response to the San Jose State case. Four white freshmen were accused of bullying Williams, barricading him in his room and snapping the lock around his neck.
Campus climate, a term that describes attitudes and behaviors -- typically as they relate to ethnicity and race, religion and sexual orientation -- has become a pressing issue on college campuses.
San Jose State set up its task force on racial discrimination after the outcry over the alleged hate crime.
Cordell and other task force members are calling for more resident advisers in dorms; more diversity training for employees and students; a mobile app for reporting hate crimes; a more diverse faculty and other changes.
On Friday, Cordell said the task force was unaware until the claim was filed that Williams himself had tried to draw attention to the hazing in the "Roommate Living Agreement."
It is not uncommon for RAs to meet with roommates to create guidelines for living together, Cordell said, especially if they have had difficulty getting along.
"That was his way of crying out," said Cordell, who also is San Jose's independent police auditor. "Why didn't someone on the housing staff ask, 'What does this mean?'"