AU is lat­est col­lege to unite in de­nounc­ing a racial in­ci­dent

The Washington Post Sunday - - COMMUTER - BY SARAH LARIMER sarah.larimer@wash­post.com Su­san Svrluga con­trib­uted to this re­port.

Ado­nis Bil­li­zon-John­son sat amid a sea of empty blue chairs one re­cent af­ter­noon, pa­tiently wait­ing for a town hall fo­rum at Amer­i­can Univer­sity.

“I want to make sure that I have a seat,” said Bil­li­zon-John­son, a 19-year-old from New Or­leans. “I’m pretty sure it will be filled to­day.” He was right. Soon enough, a crowd packed the space at the Mary Gray­don Cen­ter on AU’s cam­pus, some stand­ing in the back. Ear­lier in the week, a dis­turb­ing racial in­ci­dent had dis­rupted the cam­pus, and they had come to talk about how the school and its stu­dents could re­spond.

“At this very mo­ment, peo­ple are wait­ing to see what we do. All eyes are on us right now, every­one,” Tay­lor Dump­son, Amer­i­can’s new president of stu­dent govern­ment, told the crowd. “There are chil­dren, par­ents and stu­dents alike, look­ing to us across the coun­try, to fig­ure out how we’re go­ing to ad­dress th­ese is­sues on our cam­pus. We have to use this mi­cro­cosm that is AU to set an ex­am­ple for others to fol­low.”

On Mon­day, just days ear­lier, ba­nanas hang­ing from string “in the shape of nooses” had been found at three lo­ca­tions on the North­west Washington cam­pus, school of­fi­cials said. The ba­nanas were “marked with the let­ters AKA,” the ini­tials of Al­pha Kappa Al­pha, a pre­dom­i­nantly black soror­ity.

“I re­gret this hap­pened, apol­o­gize to every­one of­fended, and state em­phat­i­cally that this in­ci­dent does not re­flect what Amer­i­can Univer­sity truly is,” read a memo on the mat­ter, is­sued by AU President Neil Ker­win.

The dis­cov­ery came as the univer­sity wrapped up its aca­demic year and stu­dents at Amer­i­can, a pri­vate school with an en­roll­ment of about 13,000, tried to fo­cus on fi­nal ex­ams. It also oc­curred as Dump­son — who is a mem­ber of AKA and the first black woman elected as the school’s stu­dent govern­ment president — was just be­gin­ning her term.

“I called this town hall be­cause as the first African Amer­i­can fe­male president, I am ap­palled; as a stu­dent sec­ond, I am out­raged; as a mem­ber of Al­pha Kappa Al­pha Soror­ity In­cor­po­rated, I am nau­se­ated; and as a tar­get, I am numb by the vile act that a mem­ber of our com­mu­nity de­cided to take dur­ing a his­toric mo­ment for our cam­pus,” Dump­son said Thurs­day.

She called the event a “tip­ping point that of­fi­cially caused every­one to say ‘enough is enough.’ ”

Though racist in­ci­dents are not a new prob­lem on col­lege cam­puses, said Kevin Kruger of NASPA Stu­dent Af­fairs Ad­min­is­tra­tors in Higher Ed­u­ca­tion, there seems to have been an in­crease re­cently.

This aca­demic year has seen racially of­fen­sive posters on many cam­puses, as well as other charged in­ci­dents. A stu­dent wore a go­rilla mask to taunt Black Lives Mat­ters pro­test­ers at one South­ern col­lege. Just this week at St. Olaf ’s Col­lege in Min­nesota, a racist note was left on a stu­dent’s car. At the Univer­sity of Mary­land, a noose was found in a fra­ter­nity house.

Some spec­u­late that na­tional po­lit­i­cal rhetoric and con­tro­ver­sial speak­ers who come to col­lege cam­puses have em­bold­ened peo- ple to say out­ra­geous things, Kruger said — that they feel as though they have been given per­mis­sion to say things that of­fend others.

“I think it’s been a tir­ing week,” said Asha Smith, a se­nior from Indianapolis who is African Amer­i­can. “I think it’s par­tic­u­larly dif­fi­cult be­cause I feel like black stu­dents on cam­pus have been robbed of the abil­ity to spend their time fo­cus­ing on fi­nals.”

Thurs­day’s town hall was not a meet­ing filled with an­gry out­bursts. Stu­dents came with ques­tions, con­cerns and sug­ges­tions about what might be done dif­fer­ently at AU. As the af­ter­noon con­tin­ued, the crowd filled a white­board with ideas.

Some sug­gested more public­safety foot pa­trols at night; others won­dered whether such a pol­icy would dis­pro­por­tion­ately af­fect stu­dents of color.

Some spoke up about di­ver­sity among mem­bers of the univer­sity’s fac­ulty, or about train­ing that fac­ulty and staff re­ceive. AU is about to get a new president, said one per­son — will this en­tire con­ver­sa­tion re­peat it­self when she ar­rives?

“It was an hour and a half, and I think that ev­ery bit of that hour and a half was well spent in terms of get­ting ideas and writ­ing them down,” said Kris Sch­nei­der, sec­re­tary of AU’s stu­dent govern­ment. “If there was some­body that dis­agreed, they voiced that dis­agree­ment, and we’ll def­i­nitely be tak­ing that into con­sid­er­a­tion, as well.”

Ear­lier this week, a $1,000 re­ward in the AU case was an­nounced. Univer­sity po­lice re­leased videos show­ing a per­son walk­ing through the empty cam­pus. The FBI is as­sist­ing in the in­ves­ti­ga­tion, which was still on­go­ing late last week.

The in­ci­dent cre­ated “a pe­riod of great dif­fi­culty and great dis­tress” for the cam­pus, Ker­win said Thurs­day.

“And we’re de­ter­mined to en­sure that the rest of the cam­pus and the en­tire com­mu­nity — and in fact the na­tion and the world — un­der­stands that what oc­curred here has noth­ing to do with the fun­da­men­tal val­ues of this univer­sity,” he told re­porters.

Still, the situation spi­raled. On Fri­day, the univer­sity an­nounced that a white su­prem­a­cist had en­cour­aged on­line fol­low­ers to dig­i­tally ha­rass Dump­son.

“Ear­lier this week, the threats were on cam­pus. They con­tinue on­line. Amer­i­can Univer­sity will not al­low any mem­ber of our com­mu­nity to be in­tim­i­dated,” Teresa Flan­nery, AU’s vice president for com­mu­ni­ca­tions, said in a state­ment. “We are work­ing closely with Tay­lor to en­sure her se­cu­rity and to sup­port her through­out this process.”

Fa­lyn Sat­ter­field, a fresh­man from Indianapolis, said she re­mained very con­fi­dent and pleased with how the univer­sity had han­dled the mat­ter so far. She said that though she hoped the school would make changes, she didn’t feel as though this was Amer­i­can’s fault.

“It just feels so empty,” said Sat­ter­field, when asked about the mood on cam­pus. “Me, as a black stu­dent, walk­ing around, I see peo­ple who are white, and I’m won­der­ing what they think of me. And I’m won­der­ing what their opin­ions are about it, and if they sup­port me.”

SU­SAN WALSH/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Con­gress­women flank Amer­i­can Univer­sity stu­dent govern­ment president Tay­lor Dump­son, sec­ond from right, as she speaks at a news con­fer­ence Thurs­day about a racist in­ci­dent at the col­lege.

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