Students involved in Gallaudet University's group for gay men and lesbians said they fear for their safety and want school officials to address anti-gay hostility on campus in the wake of the slaying of Eric Franklin Plunkett, a 19-year-old club member who was found beaten to death last week in his dormitory room.
The death of Plunkett, a freshman from Minnesota, has shocked students and staff on the tranquil Northeast Washington campus. But his violent end has been especially terrifying to the student-run gay group of which Plunkett was elected secretary.
"We are fearful," said Thomas Green, 25, a junior who is president of the Lambda Society of Gallaudet University. "This happened on campus. It could happen again."
D.C. police have no suspect or motive in the case, which is being investigated as a homicide. Police officials reiterated yesterday that Plunkett's slaying is not being investigated as a hate crime, and they remained tight-lipped about the circumstances of his death, citing an ongoing investigation.
Nevertheless, the case has become a catalyst for many gay students and club members to talk about the hostility some have experienced at Gallaudet, the premier university for people who are deaf and hard of hearing.
In the days before Plunkett's death, Green said, several gay students were targets of disparaging comments. Anti-gay slurs were found on memo boards outside dormitory rooms and offensive comments were made to students in the past three weeks, Green said.
Shortly after Plunkett's body was discovered Thursday, Green was talking with a friend on a campus plaza crowded with students waiting for the latest news. The friend, Green said, watched a young man nearby say in sign language: "Oh, good, one less" gay, using a slur. Green said he turned around and saw the student smiling and gesturing in approval.
Fear had been so palpable before Plunkett's death that when many heard that a Gallaudet student had been killed, "our first thought was that it was a hate crime," Green said, adding that the feeling among gay students was that the hostility had finally "come out into the open."
Members of the Lambda Society are now taking precautions.
A faculty member who teaches a self-defense course conducted a session for club members Sunday, and more courses are being planned. In addition, the group is looking into creating a "buddy system" so members are never alone for too long when walking on campus.
Green, who until yesterday had been reluctant to discuss anti-gay sentiment on campus, said he is waiting for more information about the investigation before speculating about the motive.
He has, however, taken his concerns about anti-gay incidents to school officials, and plans were in the works yesterday for him to meet with university President I. King Jordan.
University officials said harassment is not tolerated and efforts would be made to address the concerns of gay students. "This is an open community," said school spokeswoman Mercy Coogan. "We do not discriminate. And if people do discriminate, they just don't belong here."
Not all agree with the concerns raised by Green and others.
Chris Soukup, president of the school's student government, said the problems that exist on every college campus exist to some degree at Gallaudet. "To say that this is a problem . . . I don't know if that's fair to say," said Soukup. "We don't know what there is to be afraid of."
Green and another student met yesterday with representatives of the District-based Human Rights Campaign, the country's largest gay advocacy organization. Spokesman David Smith said the group will be meeting with more students in the coming days and will bring students' concerns to police and university officials.
"Clearly, the students that we met with are scared," said Smith, adding that the incidents relayed to the organization suggest a pattern of harassment against gay students that has gone unaddressed. "Whether this is a hate crime or not, it has had the effect of many hate crimes, sending a chilling message to a population."
The case has drawn the attention of local and national gay organizations. Alexander C. Leffers, a spokesman for Capital Metropolitan Rainbow Alliance Inc., which sponsors a deaf/gay group for youth, said the incident is upsetting to people who are deaf and gay. "People are much more open-minded and friendly than in years past," he said. "To see this incident come to pass is shocking, to say the least."
Plunkett was elected secretary of the club Sept. 21 and, though new to the campus, had become one of its most motivated members.
The club has about 40 gay students as well as about 15 straight members.
Investigators have said they have no evidence linking Plunkett's involvement in the group to the slaying. Fifth District Cmdr. Jennifer Greene said police have spoken to club members who are friends of Plunkett's, but Green expressed frustration that he had not been interviewed.
Friends and family of Plunkett plan to gather at a Burnsville, Minn., church tomorrow for the funeral. On Friday, Plunkett's parents will attend a memorial service at Gallaudet.
Staff writer Petula Dvorak contributed to this report.