Towers Hall Council President resigns after controversial posts

(Photo by Brad Leuchte)

The president of Towers Hall Council resigned on Oct. 20 after allegations were made against her that she had shared posts some believed to be racist on her Facebook account.

According to Dean of Students Melinda Stoops, students are feeling “unsettled” and “offended” about the alleged Facebook posts and Confederate flag images on the former Hall Council president’s personal belongings.

The student had felt threatened due to comments made about her on social media sites such as Yik Yak, said Stoops.

Rebecca Parker is the new Towers Hall Council president.

Kathy Martinez, director of the Center for Inclusive Excellence and a member of the Bias Incident Response Team, said she heard comments were posted on Yik Yak which were directed at the former Towers Hall Council president. She added that she “doesn’t condone bullying of any kind.”

Martinez believes without proper guidance, students may have a hard time handling a disagreement about a controversial matter appropriately.

“First and foremost, you want controversy with civility,” said Martinez. “There is a very specific difference between attacking a person and challenging an individual’s ideas. We must separate the two. We want students to engage in rigorous debates. We need intellectual conflict, but when that becomes harassment and bullying, then we’ve lost the purpose.

“I think reporting incidents that make students feel unsafe or uncomfortable is really the first step – that you have to seek out professionals on this campus who are here for all students,” she added.

Stoops said, “There are lots of different layers of concern for this.”

Stoops said a person’s personal social media page is not the institution’s property. Nor is it monitored.

“We want to recognize that people have the right to freedom of expression, and that includes things that we don’t always approve of or that we may find offensive,” said Stoops.

She said she can understand why some people can be upset or feel threatened or offended by seeing certain images given what they may stand for or imply.

Chief of Staff and General Counsel Rita Colucci said one significant limitation to freedom of expression is that “language that incites violence is not protected.

“Social media, unlike other expressions of speech, has the ability to spread messages far and wide very easily,” said Colucci. “This could have some unintended consequences for the individual posting messages.”

Dean of Behavioral and Social Sciences Sue Dargan said she saw one image the former Hall Council president shared and she found it to be very upsetting.

“It actually not only made fun of how Asian people talk, but it had a violent piece to it,” said Dargan. “I found it horrifying.

“Many of us have had experiences where we said something on Facebook or tweeted or [posted on] some other form of social media that other people have found offensive or disagreed with,” she added. “There are consequences when that happens.”

Virginia Rutter, a sociology professor, said she saw a few posts, and they offended her personally, politically and intellectually.

“By which I mean I’m a professor, I’m a scholar, I’m a writer, I’m a thinker and the posts themselves didn’t hold up in terms of having particularly well-developed ideas,” she said.

Rutter said, “It’s still very unclear, everything that has happened. … That is the fact I take away from this whole thing. By this whole thing, I mean the Facebook posts that occurred in October and the various responses that we’ve seen to those Facebook posts. In terms of details, a student shared the posts with me and I learned about the bias incident reports that were filed.

“I know that there are many people in the administration that are aware of this event and are troubled, concerned and engaged by it,” Rutter added.

As for students’ responses, Rutter said she is excited and believes students are doing well in terms of “reaching out to The Gatepost, in terms of doing a petition, in terms of filing bias response reports, in terms of reaching out to people, faculty and other mentors about what was going on.

“I think that the things I do not know about what’s going on highlights that the institution doesn’t have paths and tracks yet in place that can help to leverage student voices and student initiative to the kind of meaningful dialogue that’s been missing in this situation,” said Rutter.

Mońet Johnson, a sophomore resident of Towers, was the first student to bring these posts to the administration’s attention on Oct. 7, according to Stoops.

“She is our Hall Council president,” said Johnson. “She is in charge of how we are represented, and her views don’t reflect ours – especially her xenophobia, her fear of immigrants. … This is not how we want to be represented.”

Johnson said she felt misrepresented and uncomfortable living in Towers Hall because of the former Hall Council president’s reposts of memes disparaging African Americans, immigrants and Native Americans, among other groups.

Johnson brought a PowerPoint she made of the former Hall Council president’s reposted memes. Stoops advised her to speak to her Residence Director, Johnny Hurley.

According to Johnson, she was advised on multiple occasions by administrators to “confront” the former Hall Council president, and to learn “to deal with people who have separate opinions.”

A bias incident report was filed on Oct. 9 by Jackson Stevens, vice president of Towers Hall Council, which was confirmed by Chief Inclusion and Diversity Officer Sean Huddleston.

Stevens said he filed a second bias incident report a few days later concerning the display of the Confederate flag on the former Hall Council president’s personal belongings.

On Oct. 13, Johnson and Stevens started a petition to impeach the Towers Hall Council president. They walked around Towers Hall with Johnson’s PowerPoint of the president’s reposted memes and gathered 52 signatures.

Through the petition, Stevens said he wanted to show “that this is an issue and these are the people who care about the issue.”

Stevens said he was hoping the Bias Incident Response Team would lead a campus-wide discussion about the incident. However, as of the evening of Nov. 12, a public forum has not been announced.

Stevens said he received a response within five minutes of filing his second bias incident report. He met with Huddleston, and the Director of Equal Opportunity, Title IX, and ADA Compliance Kim Dexter. He said he was pleased with how the meeting went and felt he was heard.

“That was the first time I went into a meeting with administration where they actually listened,” said Stevens.

The Bias Incident Response Team met on Oct. 29 to discuss the two bias incident reports.

Huddleston said, “Due to multiple schedules, we were not able to physically meet as a team until approximately two weeks after the incidents were reported. In the meeting, we updated the team on the current status as well as all of the steps that were taken by the members prior to our meeting.”

Huddleston said the team was able to identify “potential root causes and proactive measures” to be taken to prevent incidents in the future.

According to Huddleston, proactive measures include education on free speech and core values of the University, having trained mediators facilitate discussions and provide training, investigating a certificate program for Civil Discourse and promoting dialogue to address these topics.

President F. Javier Cevallos said, “We have to come up with a mechanism to have these conversations and engage the campus in that conversation about it. Yes, we are going to have different opinions, and yes, we are going to have different perspectives, but let’s bring them to the open and let’s talk about them.”

Johnson said she took the steps necessary to report the reposted memes and raise awareness.

“I don’t want her [the former Towers Hall Council president] to be attacked,” said Johnson. “I want justice. Why are these people being put into positions of power? It doesn’t make sense that I have to talk to six administrators and write a petition, a petition that literally says, ‘Hey that’s racist and that offends me.’”

“I’m supposed to be OK with that [the reposted memes] because she has freedom of speech?”

Freshman Megan White said, “It was wrong of her to post so many of those because she’s supposed to be representing Towers as a whole and that’s portraying a bad image for us [Towers residents].”

Freshman Crysta Pepicelli said, “If she feels that way and shared it on her own time, not publicly, then that’s her thing. But it’s the fact that everyone else can see it is messed up.”

Sophomore Morgan Perry said, “She holds a position where she needs to keep her work and her personal life separate. I’m a peer mentor for the school, so I completely understand that you need to keep your personal life, your school life and your opinions and other things private to an extent. … I think it’s awesome that people got together and were like, ‘We don’t agree with this. What can we do about it?’”

Freshman Erin Bresnahan said, “This is 2015. I don’t understand why people are saying bad things about other people’s race. … Why degrade anyone based upon their skin color or whatever?”

Freshman Joey Freitas said, “Anything you say reflects upon the people you represent, so if you’re going to post something, you’re not only posting for you, but you represent the entire council. What you say can look bad for the entire council.”

Freshman James Read stressed the importance of filtering what one puts on the Internet. “You need to finely tune everything that you say. You need to make sure not necessarily that it won’t offend anyone, but more that it’s the kind of image you want to put across.”

Freshman Brian Bissonnette said, “I think about the racist memes she posted. At this point it was logical for her to step down. But about posting things that would represent Towers better, I don’t think it has to go that far.”

Priscilla Portugal-Moreno, a senior, said “I am angry with these posts. Not only am I angry that she thought it was a good idea to share them on a social media website where people of color can see it, but I know that other people on this campus agree with her and her disgusting views.

“We have got a very long way to go to overcome the injustice that is very very much alive on this campus,” she added. “It’s 2015 and racial tensions are higher than ever before. I know that everyone is aware of this, but it’s something that is talked about in hushed tones. If we become more comfortable talking about something that is happening, then more action can be taken to transform people from bystanders to active advocates.”

[Editor’s Note: The Gatepost contacted the former Towers Hall Council president and invited her to share her side of the story anonymously. However, that invitation was declined. The Gatepost has chosen not to disclose the student’s name because of allegations of online bullying directed towards the student.]

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