Even though they allegedly fastened a bike lock around a black freshman’s neck, wrote the N- word on a dry erase board, draped a Confederate flag around a campus apartment and had Nazi-era paraphernalia lying about, most everyone interviewed by San Jose State University police said they thought these actions were simply college pranks.
And for the first time on Monday since the hate charges surfaced last week, San Jose State University President Mo Qayoumi took personal responsibility for what happened.
"By failing to recognize the meaning of a Confederate flag, intervene earlier to stop the abuse, or impose sanctions as soon as the gravity of the behavior became clear, we failed him," Qayoumi said in an email and then to a crowd on campus. "I failed him."
But to anyone who knows history, these alleged actions by four white students against an African-
American freshman were not silly, harmless jokes.
"How this can be viewed without racial prejudice just boggles my mind," said retired Santa Clara County Superior Court Judge LaDoris Cordell, who is also African-American and the independent police auditor for San Jose.
The symbols chosen and detailed in university police reports show that "ugly bigotry" still exists in pockets of our country today, according to Lecia Brooks, director of outreach at the Southern Poverty Law Center. In an open letter, she said that these actions cannot be dismissed as innocent pranks and that we must not "excuse ourselves from digging deeper and doing the hard work of addressing bigotry, racism and destructive ignorance."
According to several witnesses, suspects and the victim himself - at least in the beginning - the behavior reported from August to mid-October at Campus Village apartments was supposed to be funny, and it wasn't because he was black. These statements, and more, are detailed in university police reports obtained by NBC Bay Area and published Monday.
One student interviewed told police she didn’t "think the actions were racist, just immature,” and "done for shock value." She said she thinks the 17-year-old African-American victim was bullied because he was “scrawny and easy going,” not because of his race. She thought about reporting the behavior but "didn't want to make it worse."
And, when another witness was asked, Don't these seem like horribly racist things to do? She answered: "(Prejudice) doesn't seem too present to us, it's just in the books. It doesn't seem like a big deal for us to do things like this."
One of the suspects charged with a hate crime -- Logan Beaschler, 18, of Bakersfield -- told police his actions were “supposed to be funny.”
In trying to explain why he hung a Confederate flag in the suite he shared with the alleged black victim, Beaschler said, a decorative theme of “The South Shall Rise Again” was in reference to himself and another student from Los Angeles both hailing from Southern California.
Beaschler told police the flag was “supposed to ruffle people’s feathers."
The first police report was taken on Oct. 14. The Santa Clara County District Attorney on Nov. 20 filed misdemeanor hate crime and battery charges against Beaschler, 18; Joseph Bomgardner, 19; and Colin Warren, 18, of Woodacre in Marin County, on the same day the Mercury News first reported the story.
The three were suspended by SJSU on Nov. 21. A fourth student, an 18-year-old from Los Angeles, was suspended on Nov. 22. His charges and identity are not public because he was a juvenile at the time of the alleged incidents. It has come to light that two of the accused white students were first moved to a different dorm.
Beaschler is scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 6, and Warren is scheduled to appear in court on Jan. 22 There is no court date yet set for Bomgardner.
The police reports indicate the victim himself wasn’t sure how to handle the situation.
The alleged abuse against him included: Having his shoes stolen, being locked in a closet with the doorknob removed, and being called "Three-Fifths" and "Fraction," references dating back to the days of slavery in America.
When a bike lock was allegedly put around his neck for several minutes in September, a witness acknowledged that it was meant to symbolize "putting chains and locks on the black kid," the reports state. But, according to the police report, that witness brushed off the suspects' behavior not as racist, but as a "prank war gone extreme."
How it all started is a bit unclear. The police reports indicate it may have started, in a college sort of way, over a missing pet fish that was later returned and somehow blamed on the African-American student.
When interviewed by police, the victim said he wasn’t quite sure if he was simply being pranked, or if his alleged abusers were racially motivated. But, at one point in the police interview, he acknowledged to officers that his attitude began to change, and fear began to set in.
“Don’t do it again,” he remembered telling them about the bike lock on his neck. He began to lock his door at night. He also said that he thought a Jewish roommate was going to be the next target because of Adolf Hitler references, and the fact that one of the suspect’s had a fish named "Das Booten Fisch," a reference to Nazi Germany.
A young woman, who also lived in the Campus Village apartments where the alleged behavior took place, told police that she thought this was all a bunch of “funny pranks, like doorbell ditch.”
She said the suspects all thought it was “hilarious” and just took things “too far.” She had thought about reporting the actions to a tip line but didn’t want to “disrespect” the victim because he didn’t report it.
At a subsequent news conference last week, Vice President of Student Affairs William Nance said he does not know how this could have gone on for so long without being reported. He urged anyone on campus to “say something” if they spot any type of bullying or harassment toward others.
And in a statement, California State University Chancellor Tim White said: "As a CSU community, we must confront honestly and directly incidents such as the one at San Jose State," which he called "a clarion call" for vigilance at all 23 CSU campuses.
The NAACP urged the District Attorney up the charges to felonies and add the charge of false imprisonment instead of battery alone.
"The community will not stand idly by and allow for any student of color to be terrorized simply due to the color of his skin,” said Reverend Jethroe Moore II, president of the San Jose/Silicon Valley NAACP in a statement. “This is not simple hazing or bullying, this is obviously racially based terrorism targeted at their African American roommate.”
But in a statement, DA Jeff Rosen said: “While we understand the outrage of those calling for even stiffer charges in this case, the charges are not a reflection of the degree of their racism. The charges are a reflection of their criminal conduct.”
DOWNLOAD: Statement from Santa Clara County DA
The NAACP also called on SJSU to investigate why the alleged abuse continued for so long and why no immediate action to rectify the situation was taken. Those steps are being taken.
NBC Bay Area's Chase Cain contributed to this report.