The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Multiple dorm arsons, Confederate flags put a college on edge

St. Mary’s College in St. Mary’s, Md. (Bill O’Leary/The Washington Post)

Fires have been set multiple times at a single dormitory at St. Mary’s College of Maryland during the past week, alarming many students at the small public college.

The fires come after months of tensions on campus, according to some students, including incidents with Confederate flags and swastikas. As with so many colleges, issues of race and culture are close to the surface, several students said, particularly since the emergence of the national Black Lives Matter movement and the protests and riots in Baltimore that followed the death of Freddie Gray.

Two sons of Balitmore whose lives collided

At campuses nationwide, students have been demonstrating about race and bias incidents. At St. Mary’s, a small close-knit community in a beautiful rural setting alongside a river in Historic St. Mary’s City, those tensions can feel particularly personal.

Tressa Setlak, the school’s public safety director said that she had no information about a possible motive or suspects in the fires, which the Maryland State Fire Marshal’s office is investigating.

No one was hurt and damage was minimal, she said. But there have been five fires, determined to be arson by the state fire marshal, in the past week or so, she said.

A bulletin board in a freshman dorm was set on fire March 22, said Bruce Bouch, a spokesman for the fire marshal. Then a trash can in a bathroom caught fire Tuesday evening, followed by another bulletin board set ablaze.

Two days later, another fire was set in Dorchester Hall, this one in a pile of clothes in the laundry room.

Early last Friday morning — about 2 a.m. — someone set fire to a chair on the third floor study room in the same dorm, which houses 147 students.

“Everyone was asleep. The fire alarm did not go off, and there was a fire. That’s pretty scary,” said Emma Content, a sophomore who lives in a nearby dorm. “A lot of the students are pretty freaked out,” and many of the students in Dorchester were trying to find other places to sleep, she said.

Setlak said that fire was found very quickly, before it reached a point where it could trigger an alarm. Campus security has increased scrutiny at the dorm, which does not have cameras inside but requires a key card for entry, she said.

Those three alerts are posted on the college’s public safety website.

Early Sunday morning, about 3 a.m., students received an email: “There was a small fire set in Dorchester Dorm 3rd floor bathroom by an unknown person. Please be vigilant and report suspicions.”

Students, several of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because racial issues are sensitive on the small campus, said people are worried about the fires and divided about the other incidents, with some upset by them and others brushing them off as pranks.

In the fall, some students were upset when swastikas were found scrawled on cars on campus. Earlier this year, a student set off a debate when, as part of a class assignment which students described as “challenging a social norm,” he wore a Confederate flag to a game.

“Obviously it upset a number of people,” said Leonard Brown Jr., the vice president for student affairs and dean of students.

A student group that organizes forums to encourage the community to talk about difficult issues held an event to discuss the Confederate flag incident, and it had great turnout for a discussion of both the national issue and the implications for St. Mary’s, Brown said.

Like many small colleges, St. Mary’s has many traditions, some sweet, some silly. One is its take on an Easter egg hunt: Seniors hide cans of beer around the pastoral campus for the underclassmen to find.

This year, one of the cans had a Confederate flag on it, Brown said.

Some students said more than one was found, with images shared on social media of the “racist bohs” (referencing the common nickname for National Bohemian beer, Natty Boh), but Brown said he had not heard that.

“We’re similar to every campus in trying to address the larger issues of how do we work together, how do we live in a community,” he said. Since January, groups have been working on issues such as a campus climate survey, how best to respond to reported bias incidents, and how best to train faculty, staff members and others in such issues. One group is focused on encouraging civility.

“As an institution, we’re committed to having these difficult and challenging conversations,” he said. “There’s continual work toward what we aspire to be as a community. … We do have this ‘St. Mary’s way’ — we hold ourselves to a higher standard.”

On Monday, Eric Schroeder, a student who serves on the board of trustees, sent an email to students that read, in part, “Throughout the past week, our community has faced several incidents of arson in Dorchester Hall. This destruction of property is shocking and is in direct opposition to the code of conduct we follow at St. Mary’s. For many of us, myself included, feel as though our community is being defaced and disrespected, and that students’ lives are being senselessly put at risk. This is not the first time our community has faced threats, whether internal or external, against our personal and material well being. In response to these threats, we have always come together to face these challenges as a community.

“As St. Mary’s students, we are called to maintain a higher standard of conduct that is embodied in the St. Mary’s Way.

“… Additionally, there were a number of Natty Boh cans found this weekend decorated with the confederate flag, as well as other racist and offensive ‘jokes’ and terminology. Many will see this as just the latest in a string of incidents over the last few years that have shown our campus does not do enough to live up to the values of equality and diversity we profess to hold, a point which is only emphasized by the occurrence of these symbols of hate during a long-standing campus-wide tradition that is meant to bring us together as a community. As a community, it is imperative that we conduct our traditions with both maturity and respect.”

Schroeder, who did not return messages seeking comment, asked for suggestions and went on to detail some of the efforts the school has been making to improve the campus climate.

“I still firmly believe that our community is better than these malicious acts, and that we as students will show that we will not sit idly by and allow these symbols and language of hatred to be proliferated throughout our community. Rather, we will continue to rise to the challenge and address these issues whenever they arise in our community.”