The University of Virginia was ill-prepared for a march through its campus last month by torch-
bearing white supremacists and Nazi sympathizers that ended in a violent clash with a small group of student protesters, according to a report released by the school Monday.
The report found that the university's response could have been improved by mining more information on the marchers and acting on it, improving understanding of the school's rules on demonstrations, and adapting policies to deal with big groups of menacing protesters on U-Va. land.
The school's president, Teresa Sullivan, and others in the administration came under intense criticism after the campus march on Aug. 11, the day before white supremacists held a "Unite the Right" rally in Charlottesville. Students and faculty members charged that the administration and university police had not responded adequately to protect students and had allowed the marchers to parade through campus chanting racist and threatening slogans and intervened only after students were attacked.
Led by Risa Goluboff, dean of the University of Virginia School of Law, the working group's report said while the university had taken some steps to prepare for a march on campus, it assumed the demonstration would be similar to previous marches and demonstrations on campus that were not violent and were seen as expressions of free speech.
"University officials' frame of mind was shaped by a decades-long history of nonviolent protests on grounds that led them to approach the march with the assumption that it was constitutionally protected and should be accommodated with minimal police intrusion," the report read. "On a number of levels — intelligence evaluation, policy backdrop and police response — this mindset led the university to make judgments that were misaligned to the context and left [the University Police Department] insufficiently equipped to respond. As a result, UPD understood its role as being available to monitor for potential violent disorder by anyone present, amassing backup in the event of such disorder, and intervening only in response to such disorder."
Critics of the university's handling of the torchlight march and resulting violence were not satisfied with the report's findings. "U-Va. should apologize to those students for failing to protect them," said Jalane Schmidt, a University of Virginia professor who has led efforts in Charlottesville to remove Confederate statues. "Public officials had been warned for weeks, and in various public forums given intercepted documents written by alt-right ralliers themselves, in which the alt-right promised to be violent. U-Va. apparently regarded the words of avowed Nazis more credibly than the warnings of their own U-Va. affiliates, who alerted U-Va. at the highest levels already by Friday afternoon that violent, torch-wielding Nazis planned to descend on grounds."
The report also said the university's insufficient response reflected a failure to seek out alternative sources of information rather than relying entirely on official intelligence from state, local and federal law enforcement. Additionally, the university relied on inaccurate information — some of it from the march organizers themselves — about the timing, size and route of the march that left the school unprepared to respond quickly and adequately.
The report pointed to the university's flawed application of its own protocols and its misunderstanding of laws. For instance, the university prohibits open flames on campus, but, according to the report, university police were not aware of their authority to enforce that policy.
The report also called out the campus police department for not being aware it had authority to enforce a state law that bans the burning of objects on private or public property "with intent to intimidate." It questioned why police did not act sooner when the much larger group of white supremacist marchers surrounded counterprotesters at the base of a campus statue of Thomas Jefferson.
"With the outbreak of outright physical violence, the police identified disorder, declared an illegal assembly, shut down the demonstration, and swept the area. An earlier show of force or a police cordon between the demonstrators and counterdemonstrators might have mitigated this confrontation."
The report outlined steps the university should take to prevent a similar outcome in the future, including strengthening partnerships with law enforcement training officers in "recognizing the threshold between speech and violent intimidation and [empowering] them [to] make judgment calls in response to rapidly evolving situations." It also said it is reviewing the application of emergency notification protocols and considering additional means of alerting the community about incidents and events.
The report also sounded a warning to other schools that may find themselves facing similar situations.
"Going forward, the University of Virginia and higher education institutions across the nation must be prepared to respond to situations in which violence and intimidation accompany demonstrations and protests," the report concluded. "It is incumbent upon the university to forge new policies and practices that will prevent it from again becoming a locus of intimidation and violence while recommitting to the principles of free speech at the core of its mission."