In the early hours of Thursday, May 5, former Marist men’s basketball freshman star Jao Ituka was involved in a physical altercation with another student, Trevor Cooper, in Champagnat Hall, resulting in both students’ removal from the residence hall.
Ituka was transferred to off-campus housing in Talmadge Hall and Cooper was transferred to Midrise.
Center Field reached out to both Ituka and Cooper for comment, but neither responded. Marist Athletics also declined to comment.
Marist College is conducting an investigation into the events. The school will also hold a hearing at a later date to determine the culpability of both students involved in the altercation. Because an investigation is ongoing and due to privacy laws, the school could not comment on student comment proceedings or outcomes.
The incident occurred after Ituka, who entered the transfer portal in late March and committed to Wake Forest on April 25, was made aware of racist text messages in a Snapchat group chat that pertained to him.
Cooper, the other student involved, made two remarks about Ituka. The first text reads, “That fuck should get shot.” The second text said, “I wish it was the 60s. I’d set him straight.”
The second text refers to the 1960s, a decade in American history fraught with racial tension and violence, especially in the southern United States. The decade saw the assassinations of civil rights leaders Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X.
The physical conflict between Ituka and Cooper, who both resided on the second floor of Champagnat Hall, prompted an e-mail from Marist President Kevin Weinman to the Marist student body with the subject line: “Incident involving racism.”
The e-mail stated: “We are aware of racist and intimidating texts posted early this morning on a Marist student group chat. This behavior has no place anywhere in society, and especially not within the Marist College community, and I condemn it in the strongest possible terms.
“The Marist College community should be welcoming and inclusive of all. In such communities, members treat each other with respect at all times, celebrate differences, and – it should go without saying – refrain from engaging in discrimination in any form.”
The chain of events began on the night of Wednesday, May 4, when the remarks were sent in the group chat; the texts were in response to Ituka becoming angry that someone had taken his shoes, which he left outside of his room on the second floor of Champagnat Hall.
The racist remarks prompted one member of the group chat, Cameron Chappelle, to share a screenshot of the texts with many people, including Ituka.
“When I became aware of the messages, I knew I had to do something,” said Chappelle, an African American student. “I screenshotted it, I screen recorded the whole conversation because I couldn’t just let it go and sit there and not do anything.”
Center Field spoke with multiple residents of the second floor who witnessed either the altercation or its aftermath.
Several other members of the group chat were discussing the situation with the second floor’s resident assistant when they saw Ituka in a state of agitation around midnight searching for Cooper.
While the group went back to get the RA, Ituka and the other people he was with gained entry into the room through an unlocked door. Cooper was sleeping, and Ituka had just begun to kick Cooper when the RA entered the room and broke up the conflict.
By this time, there were several people in the room and in the hallways of the second floor of Champagnat Hall. Marist Security was called to the scene and talked to both parties involved. Cooper wanted to press charges against Ituka, so the police were called and arrived on the scene around 3 a.m.
Once the police arrived, spoke to Cooper, and got the full context of the situation, they advised him not to press charges because he lacked any lasting physical injuries.
The police left the scene between 4 and 5 a.m.
Several residents of the second floor of Champagnat described Cooper as having a history of making racist and homophobic comments well before the events of May 5.
He and Ituka had a series of tense exchanges dating back to September in another racially charged incident that led to a conflict during Parents’ Weekend.
The problem began when Cooper began appropriating black slang over text in a mocking manner and then continued in the second-floor common area. Ituka inadvertently broke a “community plant” in the common area, which many residents found funny. A picture of Ituka was sent to a group chat which included Cooper among several other people.
Upon seeing the picture Cooper began texting in mock black slang, saying he would call up his “Norwalk Hittas,” a reference to the town of Norwalk, CT. He sent various other texts before the situation spilled into the common area.
According to one witness, “The two of them were circling around, and you could kind of just see like, [Cooper] starting to instigate a little bit. It was an uncomfortable situation for everyone.”
Ituka took offense to the mockery because of his upbringing in Gaithersburg, MD, a town where the Hispanic gang MS-13 has a reputation for violence. Ituka and his family settled in Maryland as immigrants from Cameroon when the now-former Marist star was 11 years old. Montgomery County, which includes Gaithersburg, was a former hot spot for MS-13, as they were tied to 26 murders in that area between 2015 and 2016.
“There was this bit [Cooper] would do, where he would like to act like a gang member as a joke…it was like a running bit, and eventually Jao got fed up with the situation,” said another resident of the second floor.
The RA on the floor was able to break up the conflict before it had a chance to turn physical, but the encounter helped lead to a no-contact order being issued between the two. Cooper and his roommate were given the option from Marist Housing to move to Midrise Hall after the fall semester but declined.
In addition to the racist behavior, Cooper also had a reputation for being homophobic.
“He would just make fun of gay people and constantly hate on them,” Chappelle said. “As a group, it made us uncomfortable, and we tried to shut it down.”
Center Field obtained and verified a video of Cooper in the bathroom on the second floor of Champagnat making homophobic remarks. Since Center Field granted anonymity to the person who took the video, here is the audio from the bathroom.
“I’ve really started to hate gay people more,” Cooper says in the video. When another person responded that gays were “good people,” Cooper responded, “No, they’re not.” He went on to say that there should “be a Hunger Games for [gay people].”
Multiple sources said that Cooper consistently made verbal racist and homophobic remarks that were not caught on tape or via text.
“I feel like he got into a state where he started getting comfortable with our group to the point where he was saying things that were offensive,” said another member of the Snapchat group where the texts were sent. “He’d say things that were racist and make jokes about Jao and make homophobic remarks.”
While the inappropriate words made several people in the group chat uncomfortable, nobody reported Cooper’s behavior to the second floor RA until moments before the situation with Ituka.
“We began to distance ourselves from him after we had given him continuous chances to basically improve on his character and to not say blatantly racist things,” the group member said. “The mistake that we made as a group is that we gave him too many opportunities. And we put ourselves in a position where it wasn’t that we accepted and supported what he was saying. But we let it exist in the group for far too long.”
Photo from Marist Athletics