by Clifford Cawthon
On Tuesday, December 20, three students at the University of Puget Sound (UPS) in North Tacoma were suspended from campus until 2019 by school administration for distributing flyers the university called ‘inflammatory’ and violating the university’s harassment policy.
The dispute with the students has lasted for more than a month, as they and their supporters claim that racism and racialized harassment from other students and staff have gone unchecked on the campus. This recent tension came more than a year after a group of students calling itself “the Advocates for Institutional Change” led a walkout of about 300 students in response to what they called a culture of discrimination on campus.
The latest dispute arose when flyers were distributed on campus identifying staff and students as racists, sexist, xenophobes, and in one instance a rapist.
Andres Chavez, Akilah Sandoval Blakey, and Lydia Gebrehiwot, otherwise known as the UPS Three, are accused of distributing the flyers on November 10. (The students would not confirm nor deny that they were responsible) Currently, they are physically banned from the campus until 2019, which has resulted in one of them losing their on-campus housing.
The flyers in question name 22 students, staff and security staff who have allegedly committed racist acts and sexual harassment. According to the three students, the individuals on the flyers have not been held to account for their behavior.
Since the flyers were distributed (and subsequently confiscated by security), both the president of the university and faculty have written public letters denouncing the flyers.
The letter – signed by professors Seth Weinberger, Alisa Kessel, and Robin Jacobson of the Politics and Government department, and Dexter Gordon, an African-American and Communication Studies professor – states: “We acknowledge the behaviors identified in the flyer—sexual assault, racism, transphobia, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism and misogyny—exist on our campus. They have no place in our community. But we cannot actually challenge those behaviors when they are masked behind anonymity and unsubstantiated accusations.”
Gayle McIntosh, the school’s communications director, told the Emerald in a statement that the school saw the distribution of the flyers as “harassment” and a violation of its student integrity code. The school’s president, Isaiah Crawford, denounced the flyer as “deeply disturbing and offensive. … As a community, we place a high value on freedom of speech. That freedom requires balance and does not extend to speech that violates our harassment policy, our integrity principle, and other policies that affirm the values of our community.”
The university is 74.6 percent white, in comparison to the city of Tacoma where it resides, which has a non-Hispanic white population of 60.5 percent. The students accused of distributing the flyers contest that despite all its talk of diversity, inclusion and respect, the administration dismisses claims of people who have experienced acts of racism, such as the harassment of black and non-white students, along with visitors. This issue first gained notoriety due to an online petition on MoveOn.org .The petition, started by Felicia Jarvis, the Vice Chair of the Pierce County Young Democrats, calls on UPS’s Dean of Students Mike Segawa and President Crawford to reinstate the students and drop the charges.
“University of Puget Sound has a long history of racism that goes unaccountable by the institution itself…people of color and other marginalized identities are subject to violence, discrimination and hate on a daily basis” says Chavez, one of the students accused of distributing the flyers.
The school has been accused of looking the other way when its staff and/or students have been accused of committing racist acts in the past. In February 2016, Hayward, CA charter school vice principal Omar Wandera took a group of students to visit UPS on the school’s annual college tour. According to local reports and a post on Wandera’s Facebook page, his predominantly Latino students overheard UPS students saying things like “get this trash out of here” and were instructed not to touch the merchandise in the campus bookstore because “their hands were greasy.” Wandera said on Facebook that the employee at the bookstore was “excessively aggressive” with his students. “She accosted our kids, demanding that they leave because they were ‘unchaperoned.’”
Asked for a response to Wandera’s allegations and about the UPS Three case itself, McIntosh referred the Emerald the Diversity and Inclusion plan. She declined, however, to comment on whether the staff in the bookstore have been disciplined.
Avoiding administering discipline for staff or students who commit acts of racism on campus, according to Gebrehiwot, one of the three students, is normal, “usually people who commit these acts are allowed to succeed and continue on campus.” Success requires being on campus, and they fear that being excluded from campus until 2019 would mean that they would be unable to complete their degrees.
Chavez also pointed to an incident that was published anonymously in a student magazine, Incite. The author describes a normalized harassment of people of color by security:
I have been harassed, profiled, and vehicularly stalked beyond campus boundaries while riding in cars with other people of color. Alone, security cars have followed me home, a security car has waited outside of my residence watching the building from the other side of a parking lot, and I have been haggled just emptying the trash at night. Constantly asked whether I’m a student and whether I live on campus.
The anonymous author would go on to claim they experienced similar treatment on campus more than five times.
The Emerald asked the students how their experiences had impacted their lives on campus. After pausing and contemplating the question, Gebrehiwot said, “I don’t feel safe on campus”.
According to the Diversity and Inclusion plan, UPS is an “example of a community enriched by diversity in all its forms, and by the challenges and rewards that come with diverse representation, thought, and expression.” The plan includes a list of specific initiatives. McIntosh added that “in January, university offices will close for our annual Professional Development and Enrichment Conference keynote event … on the topic of building cultural literacy in the workplace.”
However, McIntosh did not respond to direct questions about how the administration disciplines staff or other individuals following the kind of incidents that the students describe.
This vagueness about how the university punishes acts of racial harassment or abuse on campus is why Chavez and Gebrehiwot say that they’ve been reluctant to come forward. Chavez also explained his feeling of insecurity on campus to the Emerald. “So many of my other friends of color, since this whole process started, [have] been receiving a lot of looks by people. A lot of us don’t feel safe walking home at night.”
The students themselves say that the whole investigation has been unusually strict, especially compared to the way white students are typically disciplined. “From the get-go, a white student would have … gone through something educational, [such as ] one of those workshops from the Department of Cultural and Civic Engagement”.
According to the Implementation of the Student Integrity Code, “Following a hearing for a major or minor violation, and when all relevant information has been collected and reviewed, a determination of responsibility for any violations of the Student Integrity Code is made and, if the student is found responsible, appropriate sanctions are imposed. The student is notified, in writing, in a decision letter.”Despite the university taking these steps in the students’ case, they believed that their treatment by the administration was far more punitive than typical.
The administration declined to comment on any details on the investigation itself or the evidence. According to the students, they received the letter detailing the school’s disciplinary decision after a single hostile interview by the hearing officer, Residence Life director Debbie Chee. The students say the interview was interrupted by a fire alarm which cut into the investigative hearing. Gebrehiwot described the investigative hearing as “frazzled” and said there was a “guilty-until-proven-innocent” quality to it. “She wouldn’t answer any of our questions, the meeting wasn’t going how she planned it to go, she wasn’t getting the answers that she wanted to hear so she was really upset, Gebrehiwot said. Jarvis added: “[Chee] threatened to charge them. She said, ‘I could charge you right now.’”
The students believe that this investigation and subsequent ruling is a punishment for students who speak out..
The students are planning to appeal this decision, and they hope that someone who is impartial yet knowledgeable about conduct in university settings can help them. According to the university’s website, the appeal for review must be filed with the Dean’s office within seven business days, and due to the winter break, the deadline is January 9th.
“We just want to be treated fairly, we want the same treatment that a white student would get” Gebrehiwot said.
Clifford Cawthon is a Seattle based writer originally from New York’s queen city, Buffalo. Clifford has been civically engaged since he was a teenager in Buffalo and his advocacy work taking him to places as far away as Cuba. He’s also an alumni of the University of Manchester, in the UK, where he graduated with an M.A. in Human Rights and Political Science.