Students address racist incidents during Administrative Forum

Students discussed race and community service, among other issues, at the Administrative Forum. (Photo by Brad Leuchte)

Students told administrators they were distressed about what they saw as an inadequate response to racist incidents last month.

They asked administrators how they would respond to future racist incidents during a forum hosted by Student Trustee Fernando Rodriguez Tuesday night in the Alumni Room.

Rodriguez said the forum was a platform to “bridge the administrative gap between them and the students.”

The panel of administrators included President F. Javier Cevallos, Interim Vice President of Enrollment and Student Development Lorretta Holloway, Provost and Vice President Linda Vaden-Goad, Director of Facilities and Capital Planning Warren Fairbanks, Chief of Staff/General Counsel Rita Colucci, University Police Chief Brad Medeiros, Associate Dean of Students and Director of Residence Life and Student Conduct Glenn Cochran, Executive Vice President Dale Hamel and Director of Dining Services Ralph Eddy.

Towers resident and freshman Indigo Fox Tree-McGrath said she was upset by the comments and memes the former Towers Hall Council President had posted on her Facebook page, including one that was about Native Americans which she called, “damaging to me as a Native-American student and Native Americans in general … but also any minority group that is being told that what they are bringing back from being oppressed in the past to present day is not important.”

Fox Tree-McGrath said she “had to find out this information through friends and through The Gatepost, whereas I should have been notified ahead of time that this was happening, especially since I live in the building and I identify as Native American,” adding she believed this meant the administration was “hiding something from me as a student from an underrepresented minority.”

Huddleston said he understands “how it feels like to be offended and oppressed, especially because of your ethnic or cultural background. So I understand how students felt. … It offended me too.

“I needed to find out what we could do because this was on her personal Facebook,” said Huddleston, adding, “We probably could have done a better job of getting the word out that these things were occurring, but things definitely were happening. So in the future, I will make sure that every single incident that is reported gets sent out just so we all know what’s happened.”

Huddleston addressed inaccuracies he saw in the Nov. 13 Gatepost editorial concerning this incident and the administration’s response.

He said, “What was reported in the editorial in The Gatepost wasn’t totally accurate in the facts of actually what occurred. I think that The Gatepost said nothing happened until a meeting was called two weeks later, when … in fact, the article that was written says that there was immediate action started and that was, first and foremost, meeting with the person who reported the incidents because first and foremost, we want to make sure we’re taking care of that person.”

Huddleston added members from the Bias Incident Response Team went “into action” before the meeting held two weeks later, and he met with Title IX Coordinator Kim Dexter and Jackson Stevens, the student who filed the bias incident reports, during that two-week period.

He said The Gatepost editorial “wanted to focus on these two weeks in between, or two weeks’ time, as opposed to what was happening prior to that, so that’s the discrepancy that I’m talking about, that I want to be very clear about.”

He went on to say that meetings were held with the former Towers Hall Council president and she was told not to bring her personal belongings which had the Confederate flag on them into the Dean of Students’ office, where she works.

Sophomore Karl Bryan addressed the panel with concerns about how to balance free speech with racial sensitivity in relation to the incident concerning the former Towers Hall Council President, who resigned after two bias incident reports were filed against her.

Cevallos said what is considered free speech and what can be harmful speech is a difficult balance and the community needs to learn how to have a conversation about these issues. He added administrators have been discussing how to address this issue through open discussions and a “listening tour” through residence halls.

“The First Amendment gives the right to free speech and, unfortunately, it does not say anything about the right to not be offended, so being offended is part of life,” said Cevallos, who added, “So we really need to learn how to deal with those difficult situations, and I think that the environment that we are in is so ideal because we can learn to respect each other and have these conversations that are difficult conversations in a way that respects everyone.”

Huddleston said the University “needs to do a better job and certainly be much more intentional with this idea of civil discourse, this idea of people being able to talk to and address issues of difference or situations such as this.”

He added although everyone has the right to free speech, the core values of the University must be upheld, one being “an inclusive and collaborative community.”

Monét Johnson, who complained about the Towers Hall Council President’s Facebook posts to the Residence Director [RD] of Towers, Johnny Hurley, before the bias incident reports were filed, said she thought some of the posts threatened violence. “Still, nothing was done. I don’t understand how that could happen in an institution that is supposed to encourage diversity and foster our beliefs.”

Johnson said the RD of Towers “encouraged me to confront her, which was not a good idea. You shouldn’t encourage things like that. You should facilitate a discussion.”

She added, “Aside from the incredible Dr. Holloway, I feel like every single one of you have let me down. I do not pay to go here and be discriminated against.”

Holloway asked Johnson what she would want to have seen happen in terms of an administrative response. Johnson said she would have wanted to see “the administration, or faculty, or staff or anybody care,” in ways such as expressing condolences in email or other means of communication. “You could have put up a poster, and none of that was done, nothing to say ‘We have your back.’”

Some students suggested ways the administration could inform the community about bias incidents.

Jackson Stevens, vice president of the Towers Hall Council, suggested open forums to promote discussions should have occurred. He added, “I know Campus Events is hard to get through, but I think three or four weeks is enough” to find a space for a forum.

Rodriguez said a policy on hate speech should be introduced by the University. He said he thinks the University is “proactive” in ways, but the community needs a set procedure or policy “set in stone.”

Cassandra Teneus, a junior, said, “I’ve been here for thirty minutes, and so far I’ve only heard people of color speak on this panel, so I would love to hear from the rest of you,” adding that change needs to start with the administration.

She said, “Yes, you can’t make everybody not be racist. You can’t make everybody not be hurtful, but in the same way, you can also let it be known that it’s not supported.”

Teneus also addressed the incident with the Towers Hall Council President, saying she was upset that the student had her personal belongings with the Confederate flag displayed on them with her while she worked in the Dean of Students’ office. “I don’t care what anyone says what the Confederate flag stands for. It’s against people like me and people that look like me. So there’s nothing positive about the Confederate flag in my life.”

She added she doesn’t feel safe on campus and that counsellors and the contact information for people to talk to about racist incidents should be readily available.

Colucci said when she started working at FSU in 2007, “This was a very, very white institution not only in terms of student body, but in terms of faculty and staff, and that’s really changed.”

She added the administration needs student help when dealing with issues such as these and encouraged them to suggest solutions.

Freshman Kevin Pena said students should be taught what racism is in a seminar or online survey like the alcohol awareness survey new students take.

Teneus said, “I want to know what’s going on,” and added that emails about racist incidents should be sent to students as often as possible.

Junior Paola Florencio said something could be added to the FSU Go app that would inform students about bias incident reports.

Senior Sarah Cowdell said information should also be presented at kiosks such as those in the parking lots, the McCarthy Center, residence halls and shuttle stops. She added something similar to the FSU alert, where students are texted or called when there is a snow day, for example, would be helpful to inform students about incidents.

Fox Tree-McGrath said professors should be educated more about how to address racist issues and should encourage students to check their emails if a bias incident report is sent out.

Academic Vice President Vaden-Goad said the University faculty “really loves what they do,” and while diversity among faculty is at 18 percent, the University is trying to increase this percentage.

Interim Vice President Holloway also said she noticed “a major change,” but understands that is because she has been working at FSU longer than the students who have been enrolled. She said she met with faculty to discuss with them how they might address the incident involving the Towers Hall Council President in their classes.

Huddleston said the strategic plan for inclusion also addresses how to increase diversity. “One of the goals isn’t just for recruitment, but for retention as well, and that’s key,” he said.

Stevens, Johnson and senior Avarie Cook expressed concern regarding the RD of Towers.

Cook asked if there will be any repercussions or re-training for the RD of Towers, and if the RD “all-white staff” will be trained in how to respond to concerns of students of color.

Stevens said when he addressed his concerns about the Towers Hall Council President to a Residence Assistant [RA], “she said, ‘I don’t see how her opinions are going to affect Hall Council.’ That was the first time I went to someone in the administration about this, and she just dismissed what I said immediately, and I think that was the first problem that Res Life has going with this.”

Johnson said when she brought her concerns about the former Towers Hall Council President to RD Hurley, he told her to confront the student herself.

Stevens also went to the RD of Towers. “He told me the exact same thing – to approach her front on, and I didn’t feel comfortable doing that.”

Holloway said she has a meeting scheduled with Hamel and Cochran this week and suggested having RA’s and RD’s train in how to assist in reporting Bias Incidents.

Cochran said, “This is not model behavior and this is not the behavior I want to see in the community, and I’ve heard clearly that it’s not the behavior other people want to see in the community.”

Students also discussed other issues on campus. Senior May-Lynne Bautista said she feels “super uncomfortable” with the set-up of the Financial Aid Office since it is difficult to have a private conversation when there is no private area. “When I go there, the person behind me, their mother, their cousin and everybody that follows is listening, and I don’t feel comfortable with that set-up at all, for anything.”

To create privacy when discussing matters such as financial aid or registration for classes, Bautista suggested a kind of booth or barrier, but wanted administrative action to reduce the “awkwardness” and lack of privacy in the office.

Holloway agreed. “I’ve put it out there and I’ve made a comment to them – and they said, ‘Ouch,’ in response – that it reminded me of going to a welfare office. … That’s not the relationship that I want.”

She added these offices “traditionally have been some of the lowest scoring customer service on campus,” and the privacy issue needs to be addressed with Hamel and Fairbanks in terms of money and infrastructure changes.

Jace Williams, who described themself as “a trans-disabled student,” asked administrators whether there was any training in place to address transphobia at the faculty level. “Last year, I had a teacher look me in the eye and she said a man could never be a women and I had a staff member tell me not to have my cane in pictures for the school. I was wondering if there was any training for this to prevent this from happening.”

Cevallos said the administration has started a number of initiatives in regard to transgender issues, including the installation of some gender-neutral bathrooms and a new preferred name policy passing through governance right now which will allow a student’s preferred name to be on their diploma and school IDs.

Huddleston added that training is also a component of these initiatives to inform the community what they mean. He encouraged students to fill out a form on Blackboard to identify their preferred names and gender identities to help further those training sessions, and he will send out an email with further information on how to complete the form.

A senior Alternative Spring Break leader, Caitlin Murray, said the number of community service opportunities has grown in her opinion since she came to FSU in 2012, but asked administrators if there were any long-term goals to incorporate service learning in the curriculum.

“I think it’s something that our students really want. I know we’ve had outstanding numbers for applications for Alternative Spring Break. We’ve had umpteen amount of volunteers for Special Olympics. The Community Service Club has the most volunteer members that they’ve ever had. So the want and need is there,” said Murray.

She added that although Program Coordinator for Student Involvement and Leadership Development, Will Reddy, is helpful, there is a need for a position that is solely dedicated to community service, and that this will allow for students to “break out of the bubble that we have on this campus.”

Holloway said she started Civic Learning and Engagement and Outreach this year and the Department of Higher Education passed a policy on civic engagement which will assess universities on their civic outreach.

She added the administration will be hiring someone to do “an environmental scan” to assess civic engagement and service learning on campus.

Juinor Ezequiel De Leon challenged administrators to construct a form within the next two weeks.

On Wednesday evening, Huddleston sent out an email announcing a forum, called the Student Voices Open Forum, will be held Monday, Nov. 30 from 5:30-7:30 p.m. in the McCarthy Center Forum. In the email, he wrote students can “come and share questions, concerns, and feedback about your experience at FSU.” Cevallos and other administrators will be in attendance.

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