August 28, 2002

Ithaca Woman Assaulted; Students React to Incident

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In July, the Ithaca community was forced to deal with the racial assault of one of its own members, 20-year-old Patricia Morris. Her ordeal now promises to have a impact on the Cornell community as well.

On the afternoon of July 8th, Morris, an African-American women, was accosted by a group in the back of a Ford pickup truck on her way home from work in front Pete’s Grocery on W. State St., according to reports in the Ithaca Journal.

After hearing racial slurs from the group, she followed the truck into the lot of a local grocery in an attempt to identify the perpetrators. There, a fight began.

Two white women — Tonya Lynn Swansbrough, 25, and Tori L. Monroe, 23 — allegedly exited the truck and began beating Morris, kicking her in the face and delivering blows to her body. During the attack, Morris claims the women continued shouting racial epithets. At one point, another alleged assailant, Kevin W. Swansbrough, 31, joined the women and began assaulting Morris as well.

The three are being charged with third degree assault/bias crime, under the City of Ithaca’s bias-motivated crimes law enacted in June 2000, according to court officials. Because of the new law, the assault charges have been elevated to Class E felonies from Class A misdemeanors. Currently, the defendants are under the supervision of probation and are scheduled for an appearance before a Grand Jury in September.

The incident has spurred outrage within some members of the Cornell community. In response to the Morris attack, the Black Women’s Support Network, and Black Students United have expanded their own escort network to restore a feeling of comfort to female minority students, particularly during evening hours.

Responding to the news, Kandis Gibson ’04 said, “Ithaca is thought of as an open-minded place, and this incident makes you question whether Ithaca is as open-minded and accepting as initially thought,” said Gibson.

However, to Gibson and others in the Cornell community, this racially-motivated attack seems acutely familiar.

In January of 2002, two minority students were verbally harassed and chased by several white males in a Chevy pickup. The incident occurred on campus, and therefore resulted in an investigation by the University, and its bias incident response team.

According to University protocol, after a bias incident is reported on campus, a response team is activated. This team includes representatives of the Cornell University Police, Gannett: Cornell University Health Services, the Dean of Students’ office, and other groups which work together to both counsel the targets of the crime, and to observe whether there are any patterns involved in the incidents, according to team member, Robert L. Harris Jr., vice provost for diversity and faculty development.

One of the results of these efforts, in collaboration with student input, included the installation of more blue-light emergency phones, and more lighting throughout the campus.

However, to some students, these actions do not go far enough to create an atmosphere of safety.

According to Gibson, although the Ithaca assault seems like an isolated incident, only proactive measures, such as escorts and diversity education, can help prevent future attacks.

Archived article by Michael Dickstein