Ursinus community questions response to bias incident

Photograph courtesy of Grizzly Staff

Naseem Syed



In the last week of fall semester, a racial epithet used to disparage African-Americans was found spelled out in the snow behind New residence hall in the early morning of Dec. 14, 2017.

After being reported to Campus Safety, the epithet was photographed as evidence and then destroyed. Within hours, Dean Debbie Nolan sent out a campus-wide email to inform the community of the incident and to ask for support in the subsequent investigation carried out by Student Affairs and Campus Safety.

In a follow-up email sent out to the community on Jan. 12, Dean Nolan confirmed that a student “came forward and took full responsibility for the action,” adding that “following official college policy” the student “was adjudicated and received disciplinary sanctions.”

According to the Student Handbook, violations of student conduct policy are addressed in either an administrative hearing or a private hearing held by the student conduct panel. The panel consists of two students and three faculty members chosen by the student government and faculty election, respectively.

“There are no administrators — the student conduct panel represents diversity across race, gender and department and is elected by the campus community,” Dean Nolan said.

The five members of the student conduct panel review the case, determine for which violations the student will be held responsible, and then deliberate disciplinary sanctions in a private setting, Dean Nolan explained.

In a recent interview, Dean Nolan acknowledged a “heartwarming response of outrage and support” from the campus community in the wake of the bias incident. However, many students and faculty members expressed confusion and concern over the usage of the term “bias incident” to describe what had happened.

Said Mya Flood ’18, “It should have been specified that [the incident] was racially-charged to alert the people of color on campus of concerns of their safety in the community.”

“[The N-word] has a hurtful history,” said Oriah Lopez ‘18. “It shows a blatant choice to be hateful.”

In a public reply to Dean Nolan’s email, visiting assistant professor of African dance Jeannine Osayande questioned whether “the incident is considered ‘bias’ or racist?”

According to Teaching Tolerance, a project developed by the Southern Poverty Law Center, a bias incident is “conduct, speech or expression motivated by bias or prejudice. It differs from a hate crime in that no criminal activity is involved.”  The difference between a bias incident and a hate crime is whether or not the activity was accompanied by a criminal offense.

“While hate crimes, if charged and prosecuted, will be dealt with in the court system, schools must handle bias incidents through grievance procedures and educational programs,” according to the project.

In Pennsylvania law, a hate crime is defined as “a criminal act motivated by ill will or hatred towards a victim’s race, color, religion or national origin,” according to the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission.

Dean Nolan explained that Ursinus looked to common practice across other campuses in addressing what is considered a bias incident.

President Brock Blomberg responded to additional criticism that the College was using vague, impassive language to protect its image.

“This is a racist act. It is not ok to be racist. When Debbie used ‘bias incident’ and ‘racial epithet,’ at the highest level it meant to say that this incident was racist,” he said. “Others questioned, ‘Are you minimizing this awful event?’ But ‘bias’ is used as a collective to accurately bracket prejudice against all groups. It is a challenge in communication — to make sure [this event] is recognized as a serious grievance. We think this incident is a racist act and stand opposed against these incidents.”

Simara Price Telesford, assistant professor of biology, asked Dean Nolan in another public email to “expand upon what the disciplinary sanctions are for these type of incidences.”

When Dean Nolan did not publicly respond to Telesford’s question via email it drew further concern from students.

“The fact that we don’t know how this person is going to be punished makes other people in the community think, ‘What happens if something happens to me?’ Without people knowing what repercussions were put in place, people might still just do whatever,” said Cameron Solomon ‘19.

However, the College is bound by federal law to respect the privacy of the student’s case, Dean Nolan explained in an interview. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 protects student educational records — including judicial records — from being made public.

The Clery Act of 1990 requires colleges to release publicly the final results of the student conduct process “in cases where the violation of a College policy is also determined to be a ‘crime of violence,’” according to the Student Handbook.

In this case, the College cannot disclose what disciplinary sanctions were given to the student because it was defined as bias incident, not a hate crime. However, “the range of penalties in these kinds of situations usually includes suspension or dismissal,” Dean Nolan said.

President Blomberg said he understands why members of the community are concerned.

“People want to make sure that we are serious, and people are held accountable.” he said. “Understand the student conduct policy. Have faith in the process, in the students and faculty elected onto these committees.”

Although there is not yet a section on how Ursinus defines and addresses bias incidents in the Student Handbook, the Diversity Committee is currently working on policy specific to addressing bias incidents and hate crimes, Dean Nolan said.

The new bias incident response policy is expected to be published before the start of the fall 2018 semester.

Dean Nolan is also proposing the assembly of a Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT) that would directly handle bias incidents, including support and communication to the community.

To a file a discrimination complaint based on religion, race, age, disability or sexual orientation, the Guide for Student Concerns suggests contacting the Dean’s Office, Campus Safety or Human Resources.

If you have questions specific to the bias incident that occurred last semester, please email Dean Nolan at dnolan@ursinus.edu.


With additional reporting by Emily Shue.

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