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BIRT reacts to bias-related media incident on Campus

Email sent by the Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT) raises questions about free speech on campus

Coral Ciupak

Mackenzie Clark

Editors in Chief

On Sept. 12, Dean of Students Scott Brown sent an email to the campus community regarding the role of the Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT) in response to bias-related issues in the campus community.

The BIRT was created in Jan. 2018 as part of the implementation of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategic Plan, addressing the part of the initiative to create new policies and programs for equitable access by reviewing and updating bias incident and discrimination reporting and response processes.

The BIRT is a committee that currently includes representatives from the Division of Student Affairs, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, Security and Protective Services (SPS), Campus Life and Student Activities, Faculty Development and Human Resources and Communications. The team may also include other College representatives as needed, On Sept. 12, Dean of Students Scott Brown sent an email to the campus community regarding the role of the Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT) in response to bias-related issues in the campus community.

The BIRT was created in Jan. 2018 as part of the implementation of the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Strategic Plan, addressing the part of the initiative to create new policies and programs for equitable access by reviewing and updating bias incident and discrimination reporting and response processes.

The BIRT is a committee that currently includes representatives from the Division of Student Affairs, the Center for Diversity and Inclusion, Security and Protective Services (SPS), Campus Life and Student Activities, Faculty Development and Human Resources and Communications. The team may also include other College representatives as needed, including students, staff or faculty, human resources, other administrative areas, and/or community representatives who serve students.

The BIRT is notified of bias-related incidents either online through their bias web forms or in person through SPS, the anonymous tip line, the Dean of Students Office, Human Resources, Residence Life and/or Academic Affairs.

After receiving notification of a bias-related incident, an investigation is immediately launched by SPS or Title IX, depending on which department is deemed more appropriate to handle the specific incident. During the investigation, the BIRT discusses immediate campus safety concerns or needs for support, specific details about who is involved in the incident, the impact of the incident on specific groups or the larger campus community and what the best response is that supports any impacted individuals or groups. The incidents are also included in monthly statistics that are sent out to the campus community.

“As we considered ways we can continue to support and advance an inclusive and equitable Wooster community, the BIRT was developed last spring and we have been ready to go since the beginning of this [academic] year,” said Brown. “Our role is to provide support for students and others who have been targets of or  have been impacted by a bias incident.”

Director of Student Rights and Responsibilities Mitch Joseph emphasized the importance of working as a campus team to respond to each report, repair harm that may have been done and prevent further incidents through education, outreach and programming.

“If it’s a violation of our policies as currently written in the Scot’s Key, I’ll meet with that student or refer them to a conduct officer or conduct a panel depending on the severity of the incident,” said Joseph.

The Scot’s Key states, “The College of Wooster’s harassment policy explicitly prohibits any form of harassment, defined as unwelcome conduct on the basis of actual or perceived membership in a protected class, by any member or group of the Community … A hostile environment may be created by oral, written, graphic or physical conduct that is sufficiently severe, persistent, pervasive and objectively offensive so as to interfere with, limit or deny the ability of an individual to participate in or benefit from educational programs or activities or employment access, benefits or opportunities … The College of Wooster condemns and will not tolerate discriminatory harassment against any employee, student, visitor or guest on the basis of any status protected by College policy or law.”

Joseph highlighted the necessity of education in preventing bias-related incidents in the future.  “I’m trying to work with and educate [students] on what our policy is,” said Joseph. “Sometimes they may not realize their actions had that kind of an impact. It’s about working with that student to help them understand what that impact was.”

“You’re a Wooster student no matter where you’re at,” continued Joseph. “Even with the growing influence of social media, students are students no matter where they are and we still need to respect each other. Protecting our student body is allowing them to feel and know that they have the ability to express who they are … Our policies are written in a way that allows students to have their freedom of expression while also protecting students from harassment,” said Joseph.

In the email sent to the campus community on Sept. 12, Brown explained that the BIRT had “recently received a report of a concerning meme and related commentary that was posted on social media.”

“While the College affirms the rights of individuals to express themselves, speech or behavior that invalidates the existence or the humanity of any members of our community is unacceptable at The College of Wooster,” Brown stated. “Our dedication to creating and maintaining a safe and welcoming environment for all is unwavering.”

The Student Government Association (SGA) released a statement last Wednesday informing the campus community of a bias-related incident involving a former member of their senate. The statement referred to the circulation of an “inflammatory and discriminatory image targeting members of the LGBTQIA+ community” and affirmed that SGA “does not condone or support any form of prejudice or intolerance.”

The student responsible for the circulation of this image has since resigned from their position in SGA for reasons unrelated to the incident, SGA President Monét Davis shared with Voice reporters. “They removed themselves … because of their attendance and inability to commit to SGA fully,” Davis said.

The process for filling the vacancy created by the student’s resignation will commence later this semester, SGA’s statement read.

Davis added that SGA would not have been able to remove the responsible individual for reasons related to the incident, explaining that the current constitution has not been updated since 2011 and, as such, does not contain any anti-bias or non-discriminatory statement strong enough to warrant the impeachment of an SGA member.

While an update of the constitution and bylaws is a project SGA has undertaken in recent years, Davis emphasized its urgency following this incident. “We’re re-constructing it fully,” she said. “We have a constitution committee working very hard on it.”

For Davis, incidents such as this emphasize the importance of elections for student government. “You really need to think about who you want to be representing you, and if you have questions, ask them. Challenge them,” she said. “They’re just as important as your local representatives or those who are in Congress right now, because politics appear and can impact individuals in every aspect of our lives.”

Davis also shared her hopes for the broader discussion of free speech and free expression on campus, particularly for the student body. “It’s really important that students are engaged in these conversations,” she explained. “I think faculty have one understanding of what freedom of expression is on this campus, but the student body also has a great importance to what freedom of expression is on this campus because this is our community.”

These conversations at the College are ongoing. In the fall semester of the 2017-18 school year, President Sarah Bolton, Dean of Students Scott Brown, Professor John Rudisill of the philosophy department and leadership from Campus Council collaborated to design the Freedom of Expression and Inquiry Task Force. Rudisill described the task force’s goal as “to develop and articulate, more explicitly and carefully than we find it today, the set of principles and norms governing and protecting speech and expression at The College of Wooster.” The task force had their first meeting on Nov. 30, 2017 and is comprised of faculty, student and administrative representatives.

The most recent work of a subgroup of the task force has been to develop and eventually release a draft of the College’s statement on freedom of expression and inquiry. The taskforce plans to discuss this draft with students, staff, faculty and the board of trustees for feedback before finalizing it.

This is no small feat, Rudisill shared. The central challenge of the taskforce is in “articulating how to reconcile unfettered expression with acute demands for greater equality and inclusion and, indeed, how both goals are mutually complementary and reinforcing.”

With this in mind, Rudisill wrote in an email to the campus community in February, “It is our intention that the outcome of the taskforce’s work will contribute to the more extensive creation and maintenance of a fully inclusive and equitable academic environment and campus culture.”

Alongside various incidents regarding bias and discrimination at the College, the task force’s work has only become more relevant. “Our own deeply troubling cases of free expression controversy here at Wooster in the past 12 months have not so much shaped or informed the work of the task force but, rather, have demonstrated forcefully the urgent need for the work to be undertaken in our community,” Rudisill stated.

In the meantime, President Bolton has spoken out against bias and discrimination against the LGBTQIA+ community on campus. “Persons of every gender identity, gender expression and sexual orientation are crucial members of The College of Wooster community,” she said. “We are steadfastly committed to ensuring that the College is a place where all people, including the LGBTQIA+ members of our community, are welcomed and treated equitably … Creating such a truly inclusive community through education and through prompt response to acts of discrimination and harm that may arise is a fundamental moral obligation and a crucial part of becoming an even stronger college.”

 

 

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