A former Pennsylvania college student says in a lawsuit that she dropped out before the start of her junior year over a string of hateful and threatening anti-Semitic incidents that the school failed to appropriately address.
Cassidy Pyser, who is Jewish and enrolled at Kutztown University in 2015, alleges her roommate at the nearly 9,000-student public school about 70 miles northwest of Philadelphia sent her photos of Adolf Hitler, a hooded klansman, and a reference to Jews being burned during the Holocaust. When things escalated, the roommate allegedly smashed Pyser’s mezuzah, a Jewish religious symbol made up of a decorative case containing Hebrew verses from the Torah.
“This racist shit needs to stop,” Pyser responded, according to screenshots of the text messages included in an amended federal complaint filed last week. “The Jewish joke you sent me the other day really upset me.”
Pyser moved rooms, but the former roommate worked in the dining hall—set amid lush greenery and red-brick buildings—and allegedly refused to serve her, according to the suit, which was first reported by The Morning Call. The suit fit a pattern of a surge in allegations of anti-Semitic activity and violence in the Northeast U.S. in recent months, including other incidents on college campuses.
When Pyser reported the alleged intimidation and threats to her residence hall director and to the campus police, university officials did nothing to stop it, her lawsuit claims.
Pyser filed the civil-rights lawsuit against Kutztown University, Aramark Food and Support Service Group, Inc, several Aramark and university employees, and campus security officers who she claims violated her freedom of religious expression by failing to prevent or properly address the alleged anti-Semitism.
The defendants “individually and collectively directly created the danger that allowed plaintiff to be the victim of outrageous and uncorrected anti-Semitic acts and behaviors that caused her great emotional harm and required her to leave her studies” before the start of her third year, the complaint claims.
Kutztown “acted with culpability that shocks the conscience, and caused the Plaintiff to be more vulnerable to danger that it created on campus,” according to the lawsuit, which also alleges that university officials induced Pyser to enroll at the school with the fraudulent promise of a safe environment and that their inaction instead created a dangerous and anti-Semitic environment.
The complaint notes that Kutztown was targeted in 2017 by white supremacist groups but argues that “the university did not warn that the campus and its immediate environs had been the target of outside white supremacist groups and anti-Semitic postings, including the posting of signs throughout the campus area focused on the preservation of white American culture and heralding neo-Nazi propaganda.”
The alleged actions of Pyser’s roommate—who is not named as a defendant in the suit—and the purported failure by others to stop it, caused Pyser to sustain harm, “including economic damages, deprivation of the benefit of her bargains, and losses in tuition, as well as great emotional distress, humiliation and embarrassment,” according to the complaint.
Kutztown spokesman Matt Santos said on Wednesday in a statement that the university was unable to comment on pending litigation but that, in general, “our campus rejects all forms of racism, sexism, bigotry, and discrimination.”
He added that a Bias Response Task Force was created in September 2017 to enable faculty, administrative, student, community leaders, and experts in advising the president of the university on how to respond to bias incidents such as hate speech. Individuals named as defendants in the suit, including a slew of university and Aramark employees, did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment prior to publication.
If Kutztown does have an anti-Semitism problem on campus, it’s certainly not alone.
In February 2018, Nancy K. Baron-Baer, regional director of the AntiDefamation League, said that “far too many Pennsylvania campuses have seen white supremacist propaganda.”
Headline-grabbing xenophobic incidents on Syracuse University’s campus in November included anti-Semitic and racist graffiti and a separate incident where a student loudly yelled a racial slur against African-Americans, as well as other reports of anti-Asian racial epithets and graffiti. The university’s admittedly lackluster response to the racism and outrage led to condemnations from New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and investigations by state, federal, and local police.
And it’s not just on campuses. After a horrific stabbing at a Hanukkah celebration in New York last month led to federal hate-crime charges against a man who burst into a rabbi’s home with a machete, wounding five people; an earlier series of anti-Semitic incidents in New York City; and a separate, deadly mass shooting at a kosher market in Jersey City, police have stepped up patrols in Jewish neighborhoods and synagogues in both New York and New Jersey.