Unsourced 'Disorientation Guide' contains numerous false and misleading claims

Editors Andrew Solender, Teddy David, Yinguang Zhao and Henry Mitchell analyzed every claim in the Disorientation Guide and fact-checked them. What they found was a publication riddled with inaccuracies.

Andrew Solender
September 24, 2019

The Disorientation Guide is back, and the general consensus on campus is that version 2.0 is a kinder, gentler successor to the abrasive first edition. While last year’s Disorientation Guide drew heated criticism from students and staff for railing against campus institutions and encouraging students to engage in vandalism and violence, this version doesn’t reach the same level of potency in its calls to action. However, it does stay consistent with its predecessor in one area: sourcing. Or rather a lack thereof.

The now-perennial guide–a left-wing pamphlet aimed at disrupting the established first-year orientation with a more social justice-oriented introduction to Vassar–makes numerous charged claims about wrongdoings by the administration, trustees, campus security and Poughkeepsie police. However the 72 page document contains almost no citations of any kind–no footnotes or bibliography and just one parenthetical citation–leaving readers guessing about the sources of the authors’ claims.

The Insider has found that many of the Disorientation authors’ claims are either unverified, misleading or outright false.

Campus Security

Misleading language is ever-present in the section entitled “militarization/playing police” which features very little playing police and no militarization. The section even acknowledges that campus security is unarmed and notes that their “ability to freely enact violence is certainly far more restricted than the typical American cop.”

The authors cite changes in Safety and Security titles from “workers” and “managers” to “officers” and “sergeants” and an increase in patrol cars as examples of “militarization”. Typically the term is used to describe local police units acquiring arguably unnecessary military gear such as assault rifles, grenade launchers, tear gas and other riot gear and, in extreme cases, tanks.

As for playing police, the authors claim that Safety and Security has demonstrated a “willingness to resort to force in tense situations.” Yet their evidence consists mostly of incidents of security profiling students and community members but using no actual force.

The only example presented of Safety and Security using force is the claim that “campus security broke the ankle of a student tripping on acid” but the authors did not provide a date or source.

They also alleged that “students call security on other Black students who are doing their laundry” but didn’t cite specific incidents.

Asked about the authenticity of these claims, Vassar’s Vice President for Communications Amanita Duga-Carroll, told the Insider “our Security team tried to find incidents that might match with what [was described], but were unable.”

In the rest of their examples, the authors provide no context to show whether campus security’s actions were warranted in those specific cases, instead leaning on the assumption that all profiling, and all campus security action, is essentially unjust.

For instance, the authors bring up an incident from last December in which “students received multiple alerts about the threat of 13-year-old boys wandering around campus harassing people and attempting to steal” and lamented that enhanced campus patrols in response would result in “these kids [having] their lives disrupted by the criminal justice system” to “make this campus safer”.

That description leaves out key pieces of the story which change the context considerably. The estimated age range in the email was “13-15”–the difference between those two years in terms of size can be significant–and they omitted the fact that, in addition to harassing students and attempting to steal a bike, a scooter and a phone, one of the boys pushed and slapped a student in an attempt to steal their scooter. In other words, the authors presented the tamest possible picture of events, and ultimately a misleading one.

The boys’ lives were not “disrupted by the criminal justice system”–they were never caught–despite committing attempted grand larceny, a class E felony in New York, and misdemeanor assault.

Local Crime and Policing

In the section “When People say Pok is Sketch,” the authors assert that “when people say that Poughkeepsie is ‘sketch’, they are saying ‘Poughkeepsie is a Black and Latinx working class city and I’m scared of those demographics.’”

“Poughkeepsie is fine,” they argue, “crime rates are high because policing is racialized.” The authors provide no evidence for this claim beyond three anecdotes of racialized policing over the course of several years–one of which happened in Poughkeepsie and two of which occurred in towns many miles away.

It’s a dubious assertion that racialized policing accounts for Poughkeepsie’s reputation as dangerous and “sketch”. While crime has dropped in Poughkeepsie in recent years, its violent crime rate (read: not drug-related or non-violent crime rate) in 2018 was twice as high as New York State’s, and the murder rate more than three times as high. It ranks in the top 20 among New York’s 994 cities and towns in both those metrics.

Moreover, the FBI tabulates the violent crime rates based on far more than just arrests and police actions. According to their website, they “capture details on each single crime incident—as well as on separate offenses within the same incident—including information on victims, known offenders, relationships between victims and offenders, arrestees, and property involved in the crimes.”

Molly Buchanan, an Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, notes that “evidence of racialized policing leading to inflated violent crime rates is not going to be easily interpreted from official crime statistics” and concluded “to say the city’s rates are inflated feeds into the common misperception about crime.”

Buchanan said that “while Poughkeepsie crime rates may be higher than some of the locations first-year students may have originated from,” she does agree with the authors’ underlying message that “perceptions of crime in Poughkeepsie are not reason to be fearful, per se, or to disengage with the broader Vassar-Poughkeepsie community.”

However, she added that “in aims to reduce victimization risk even closer to ‘virtually zero’ as the author(s) noted, some semblance of orientation [to the community’] is warranted,” which includes informing students of pockets of the city where “crime tends to be concentrated,” especially since college students are at “higher risk [of victimization] due to their age and routine activities.”

Buchanan did also note that while the numbers are high, they may be misleading. For instance, Poughkeepsie’s annual high murder rate is just a handful out of a population of 30,000–higher than most small cities and towns which have zero murders. However, she concluded that the authors’ assertion that racialized policing accounts creates inflated crime numbers “is somewhat misleading for such a complex topic.”

The authors do identify one threat to students in Poughkeepsie: Trump supporters. They suggest that Trump supporters in the Town of Poughkeepsie, as well as the Trump-supporting Sheriff of Dutchess County, pose a threat to students of color, but fail to cite any examples of that having been the case.

They also assert that the Town of Poughkeepsie is “home to active white supremacist groups,” but they don’t note any specific groups, only offering an example of Patriot Front and Daily Stormer posters being put up around campus. Neither of those groups are based in New York.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center’s hate map, there is only one active white nationalist group in the Hudson Valley. The group is called The Right Stuff, an anti-Semitic blog, and it’s located in Hopewell Junction, several towns over from Poughkeepsie.

The authors also omit the uncertainty surrounding one of their examples of racialized policing. They claim that “a New Paltz Officer punched Paul Echols, a 22 year-old black man who was already in handcuffs, breaking his jaw and knocking out several teeth.”

However, it’s disputed whether it was in fact the police officers who broke Echols’ jaw or if it was broken when he was punched in the face during a fight prior to police intervention. New Paltz, it should be noted, is 12 miles from Poughkeepsie, across the Hudson River.

Their final example of racialized policing in Poughkeepsie occurred two years in Ossining. High school senior Diego Puma was arrested and detained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and deported to Ecuador along with his mother. Besides the fact that this has nothing to do with local policing–ICE is a federal agency–it also took place 50 miles away from Poughkeepsie.

Vassar History

In the section “A Vassar & Poughkeepsie Timeline”, the authors tell the story of a woman who questioned former Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the Eleanor Roosevelt Chair lecturer at the time, on the “Moynihan Report” written in the 1960s. Moynihan, they write, “responded by taking the woman by both shoulders, shaking her, and telling her that if she didn’t like it here in America, ‘Why don’t you go back to where you came from!’”

While accounts of the event do document Moynihan’s anger, as well as him saying “If you don’t like it in this country, why don’t you pack your bags and go back where you came from,” there’s no evidence of any physical altercation such as the one the Guide describes.

Articles by the New York Times, the Miscellany News, The Chronicle of Higher Education, the LA Times and the Gawker essay “My Vassar College Faculty ID Makes Everything OK,”–an essay which the authors invoke numerous times elsewhere in the Guide–all make no mention of Moynihan laying his hands on Gray. Had it occurred, it would’ve been by far the most newsworthy part of the event.

The authors also state that, in 2017, “[President Elizabeth Bradley’s] welcome party was rumored to cost $1 million.” They don’t specify where these rumors came from, let alone offer any formal sources.

Later in the guide, when talking about the backgrounds of Vassar’s trustees, the authors once again present this claim. Only this time it’s presented as hard fact, rather than just hearsay: “[Bradley’s] welcome party cost close to $1,000,000.”

The Insider was unable to corroborate that $1,000,000 figure. The administration declined to comment.

Why we fact checked this guide

This effort to fact check the Disorientation Guide, which is a somewhat influential presence on campus, will likely be met with charges of ideological motivation. We want to make it absolutely clear that we do not contend with the normative political stances of the Disorientation authors.

Rather, we felt it is necessary, for the sake of keeping our peers informed, to highlight the lack of transparency, accuracy and intellectual rigor in the Guide and to shed light on misinformation presented therein.

To be sure, the guide contains as many verifiably true (though still unsourced) claims as it does false or misleading ones, if not more. Moreover, some of the claims that we fact-checked but did not disprove could very well be true–we were simply unable to sign off on their veracity after copious amounts of research over the course of several weeks, which is problematic either way.

Nevertheless, the guide is riddled with inaccuracies and lacks any sourcing. This is unbecoming of political discourse at Vassar, where a student would receive a failing grade and likely a plagiarism charge for turning in a paper with tons of direct claims but no citations. The authors, it seems, missed that part of orientation.

The disorientation authors did not respond to multiple emails seeking comment on this story and asking for clarification on specific claims.

Teddy David ’22 is the Managing Editor of the Insider and a prospective history major with interests in political science and international relations. He is also a member of VOICE and the Vassar College Republicans.

Yinguang Zhao ’23 is a Junior Editor for the Insider and a prospective Political Science major from Beijing. He is an academic assistant in VeritasChina and was chief editor of his high school’s online news agency, Imaginist.

Henry Mitchell ’22 is a Junior Editor for the Insider and a prospective political science major and history correlate. He has interned for a member of the Pennsylvania House of Representatives.

Andrew Solender

Andrew (’20) is the Editor-in-Chief. He is a political science major and history correlate. He has worked as an intern at MSNBC, a political reporter for Chronogram Magazine, Inside Sources and City & State NY, and has been published in the Poughkeepsie Journal and Psychology Today. He also plays on the varsity squash team.