BUTTE — Montana Tech officials say a rash of harassment and mistreatment of Arab students is forcing two to transfer to other colleges and others to avoid certain places around Butte.
The incidents have included students from Saudi Arabia getting their homes and vehicles broken into and vandalized, said Mike Johnson, Tech vice chancellor for student affairs.
The students, who have not been identified and do not wish to be, have reported getting threatened, and others have been hassled around Butte.
“We’ve had just some irrational treatment of our students: not getting waited on when they go to restaurants, getting mistreated at stores by the clerks and just people being mean to them,” he said.
“People are mistreated and, frankly, abused in Butte because of the color of their skin.”
One student was told that his people had killed Americans on Sept. 11, 2001, Johnson said. In other instances, they’ve been harassed and threatened at local bars, received threatening telephone calls and been shoved.
Some of the problems have included burglaries and vandalism.
A Saudi student’s home was burglarized, with the thieves clearing one room of personal items. Another student’s vehicle was so badly scratched with keys that it needs a new paint job.
Johnson said four students have received the bulk of the harassment, and two of them are transferring to another college next year. Other students have been harassed as well.
“It’s spread out to some other students, and we don’t hear about it all,” he said. “The private culture that they have, they don’t tell us about all of those incidents.”
But Capt. Doug Conway, detective with the Butte-Silver Bow Police Department, said they haven’t had indication from Tech officials that the crimes were racially motivated. He said they’re still investigating the break-ins, but added there have been more than a dozen burglaries of Tech students’ homes this school year.
“We’ve not made any kind of connection that would single them out from anybody else,” Conway said. “I can’t tell you that they’re anything other than random.”
However, one altercation over the weekend may have a racial element, Conway said.
Two Saudi students pulled into a convenience store on Montana Street and were approached by two men. One of the men punched one of the students after telling him he didn’t like him.
Conway said a detective is reviewing the surveillance video while the case is investigated.
“If we can determine that this altercation was based on race and ethnicity, then we definitely will be cooperating with the FBI because we’d have a hate crime,” he said.
Agents with the FBI met with Butte police and Tech officials but are not involved in the investigations of the incidents, Conway said.
Tech is worried how the harassment could affect recruitment of students from outside the United States, said Margie Pascoe, administrative associate for student affairs.
The college has more than 80 Arab students on campus. She said two of the Saudi students who have been the targets of the harassment are transferring to other universities in the United States that offer petroleum engineering.
“I don’t want all 80 of them doing that,” she said. “I’m working with sponsors to be sure that we don’t lose more.”
Those losses have an effect on the Butte community as well as Tech, Pascoe said.
The students bring their families, rent homes and use other services to the tune of $30,000 each per year. She said last year three of the students’ children were born in Butte, and they are an important part of both Tech and Butte by adding diversity.
“Getting to know them, they’re just great people,” she said.