Chestertown and Washington College town halls address issues of diversity

By Cassy Sottile and Erica Quinones 

News Editors

The Chestertown and Washington College communities united for a town council meeting on Monday, March 2 at 7 p.m. to discuss the events surrounding the multiple bias incidents that occurred since November. Following the Town Council meeting, the College administration hosted a Town Hall in Norman James Theatre at 8 p.m. so students could voice their fears, frustrations, and worries over the state of diversity, equity, and inclusion on campus.

Chestertown Mayor Chris Cerino was joined by Council members David Foster, Thomas A. Herz, Reverend Ellsworth Tolliver, Meghan E. Efland, Utilities Manager Robert Spies, Town Clerk Jennifer Mulligan, and Town Manager William Ingersoll at Chestertown council meeting. 

The meeting began earlier than usual so they could prioritize the discussion surrounding the bias incidents and “give students a public forum to talk to the elected officials,” according to Mayor Cerino. 

“I want these students to know and I want people of color in our community to know that these racist incidents that were clearly meant to intimidate are not acceptable to these elected officials, and we will do everything in our power to deal with this in a timely manner using any resources and whatever extent of the law the town can use,” Mayor Cerino said. 

Cerino was hoping for a good turnout because the “vast majority of people in this community appreciate the fact that you guys are here, we appreciate the diversity you bring to the community, we understand that you’re an incredible resource, and the College is a really important economic resource to the town and community.” 

Councilman Reverend Ellsworth Tolliver spoke about the opportunity to make change in the community for the lives of the black citizens.

“I appreciate that these incidents have occurred on the College campus because what has happened is it has opened up the window to the lifestyle and the life that a black citizen of Chestertown and Kent County has to go under all the time,” Reverend Tolliver said. 

Chestertown Police Department Chief John Dolgos summarized the series of racial bias incidents at WC this school year. 

One week after Nov. 11, CPD received a call from the Department of Public Safety in reference to an incident that occurred the same day in which racial slurs were yelled out the window of a vehicle at a black female. 

CPD was just made aware of the incident, according to Chief Dolgos. 

On Nov. 22, an SUV and a pick-up truck drove through campus yelling at students. There were racial slurs and dialogue between one occupant of the truck and two black females on campus. Public Safety advised CPD the next day, and CPD conducted an investigation, referring one juvenile of the truck to juvenile services for disturbing the peace and disrupting school activities. 

On Feb. 16, Public Safety called CPD to report four white males in a vehicle driving through campus allegedly yelling racial slurs. 

“In that incident there was a witness and a victim. At this time, the case is still under investigation,” Chief Dolgos said. 

Six days later on Feb. 20, Public Safety investigated a possible racial incident that occurred at a crosswalk, alleging a white truck that was revving its engine. 

No slurs were said, so it was not ruled as a racial incident, according to Chief Dolgos.  

Of the three incidents reported to CPD, two have been investigated. 

“Through our investigations, it was revealed that the incidents were isolated to a group of juveniles using very poor judgment. It also revealed that there was no evidence of any types of organizations or groups involved,” Chief Dolgos said. 

The College is private property, so CPD is not usually the primary responding agency on the campus. If Public Safety feels like they need backup or want to take a deeper look into what happened, they call CPD. If CPD needs backup, then the Kent County Sheriff’s Department is called, followed by the Maryland State Police if there is a need, according to Mayor Cerino.

“In all of these incidents, the town was not the first responder,” Mayor Cerino said. 

CPD would press charges in conference with the State Attorney’s Office depending on the case and when a witness confirms that slurs were said. 

Due to the offenders being juveniles, the names were not released; however, it is possible to deduce that since they are driving they are younger than 18 and older than 15, which leaves the 16 to 17 age group, most likely coming from the school system, according to Mayor Cerino. 

“If their mission was to intimidate and frighten the students, I can tell you for sure that they succeeded. And that is all that really matters,” Mayor Cerino said. 

Senior Paris Mercier spoke about the impact that the racial incidents made on the black students within the campus community. 

Mercier highlighted all the racial incidents that occurred on campus since the cancellation of the play “The Foreigner” in November. 

“From all different corners of Kent County, including media and those commenting on newspaper articles, black students were being told to go somewhere else if they felt unsafe and that the College was not a place for safety. This was the start of a heightened sense of fear for all black students and other students of marginalized populations,” Mercier said. 

Since the incidents began in November, black students have had to maintain a heightened sense of awareness when walking to and from any part of campus after sunset, according to Mercier. 

“There is a shared sense of trauma that has occurred within our community. Our anger and frustration that we are experiencing does not end with the things that we have personally experienced at WC, but it extends to the students in the high school,” Mercier said. 

For the past three years Mercier has worked with a group of high school students that are “speaking out and presenting on the hate that they are receiving.”

“We have all failed as advocates,” Mercier said. 

According to Mercier, students attended the town council meeting not to point the finger at the community but to express the need of collaboration among the College, the students, and the local community.

President Kurt Landgraf spoke on behalf of the College and emphasized that while blame is not being cast on anyone, this is a community issue. 

“These events did not just start happening. This has been happening the entire three years that I have been here,” Landgraf said. 

He stressed the importance of the safety of the students and the relationship between the College and Chestertown. 

“Today, unlike five years ago, we have almost 20% of our student body who are persons of color, and we have made a real effort at the College to diversify the campus,” Landgraf said. “If we are going to grow, we have to face the fact that the cohort of people who are applying to colleges like WC is increasingly persons of color.” 

If the College does not thrive, WC does not survive and the city will not be the same place five years from now, according to Landgraf. 

“WC itself has got work to do. This is not just an external problem — we have some issues at WC that we have to deal with. If we are going to make this safe and caring for all of our students, it is not just the city of Chestertown and Kent County, it is WC and how we deal with people,” Landgraf said.

Superintendent of Kent County Public Schools Dr. Karen Couch followed Landgraf, saying that “the administration and board of education remain committed to the safety and wellbeing of our students and that is why we assume responsibility for anything in our schools that provides our students with that feeling of an unsafe environment.”

Though the names of the apprehended individuals have not been shared, their “insensitivity and racist behaviors are not excused,” Dr. Couch said. 

Robbie Behr of Support Our Schools, a public school advocacy group, apologized on behalf of the community for not doing enough to ensure that students feel safe and that all people of color feel safe in our community and offered their support to all students. 

“We have to remember that the people who need to hear this most are actually not in this room. We are all in this together, we are all allies in this room,” Behr said. 

Following all prepared remarks from guests, Mayor Cerino opened the floor to community response in which many community members expressed their support for the students and sentiment that it is a community problem.

“These kinds of acts have no place not only in Chestertown but really the whole county,” Mayor Cerino said. 

Following the town council meeting, WC students, faculty, and staff filled Norman James Theatre located in William Smith Hall.

Audience members filled the rows of seating and balcony, some even lining the stairs and standing along the back walls.

The panel of Landgraf, Dean and Provost of the College Dr. Patrice DiQuinzio, and Dean of Students Dr. Sarah Feyerherm sat on the stage while Dr. Christine Wade, professor of political science and international studies, program director of international studies, curator of Louis L. Goldstein ’35 Program in Public Affairs, and faculty advisor for the peace and conflict studies concentration and Latin American studies concentration, moderated the event.

The Town Hall was an opportunity for students to express their concerns and frustrations over diversity issues as well as ask questions about what administration is doing to address issues of diversity, equity, and equality.

Audience voices were heard in both known and anonymous formats as students could either raise their hand and receive the microphone — later stand in line for the microphone — or write their question on a blue piece of paper to be read by Dr. Wade. 

The event began with opening remarks from the panel in which Landgraf repeated his statement that the bias incidents were not new to campus, rather recent events are an escalation which occurred after the cancellation of “The Foreigner.”

Dean Feyerherm’s opening remarks emphasized that students want action and to see it in a reasonable time, so she explained the steps the College is taking towards addressing bias issues.

These steps include the planning of a safe space in the basement of Minta Martin Hall, the creation of a script for bias incident-related WAC alerts, and the purchasing of new security cameras.

After opening remarks, audience questions began.

Students asked about a litany of topics, including issues like student safety, Title IX, and diversity regarding students, faculty, and staff.

Regarding safety, students focused questions around the lack of protective measures especially for students at night.

Sophomore Maddie Jones asked about the blue light boxes, which she said produce a busy tone whenever she tries to call Public Safety with them, despite the blue lights on top working.

Director of the Department of Public Safety Brandon McFayden said that the blue lights work independently from the phone, so if they are on, the phone does not necessarily work.

The phones themselves are checked biweekly with a repairman who visits weekly. When they work, they ought to call Public Safety when someone presses the “Call” button, and they should additionally report the caller’s location when someone presses the “Emergency” button. 

Another sophomore, Skyler Hancock, asked about the app LiveSafe, which is used to report and give tips on disturbances as well as connect users to others for a safe walk home. The app was presented by the College to the class of 2022 during orientation but not suggested to the class of 2023.

Dean Feyerherm said that while the Student Government Association made it clear they want the app back, data showed that students were not using the app when it was promoted by the school.

Promoting the app again is being discussed but has no consensus yet.

Other students asked about the Title IX process and reporting bias on campus.

A student who previously reported a bias incident and heard nothing back asked about the reports that were being handled by Intercultural Affairs before the departure of former Director Dr. Jean-Pierre Laurenceau-Medina in February.

Current Interim Director of Intercultural Affairs Carese Bates addressed the question, asking the student to see her afterwards.

Bates later said in a follow-up interview that prior to the Town Hall, Intercultural Affairs was “revamping” the bias response protocol and policy to meet the needs of all groups.

Meetings about these changes initially began in December, according to Bates.

Currently, students can report bias incidents through the intercultural affairs website or emailing Bates directly, anonymously through the C.A.R.E. report system, and either anonymously or known through Public Safety.

If there is enough information in a report, Bates will then reach out to and speak with the person who reported the incident with guided questions to find the best way to meet that person’s needs.

From there, the case is handled by a response team which consists of people across campus who will speak about the incidents. If there is an emergency, the team will meet immediately, but they typically hold monthly meetings to address issues, according to Bates.

Regarding action, bias cases might be elevated to the Honor Board if they are deemed to break the Honor Code or they might be addressed through “innovative” rectifying methods if appropriate depending on the case.

Mercier asked about the Honor Board process regarding bias incidents, questioning why they were not elevated to the Board immediately despite violating the Honor Code.

The College’s Honor Code states that: “We strive to maintain an environment in which learning and growth flourish through individuals’ endeavors and honest intellectual exchanges both in and out of the classroom. To maintain such an environment, each member of the community pledges to respect the ideas, well-being, and property of others.”

Dean Feyerherm said that there is a process to decide whether the case needs to be elevated to the Honor Board, and in some cases, the reporting student does not want the case to go to the Honor Board.

However, the Bias Incident Response Team can refer cases to the Honor Board, but few have been elevated.

As stated earlier by Bates, the response team is currently undergoing changes per recommendations from students last semester. 

“If you guys do not trust [the process], then it is not working,” Dean Feyerherm said.

Another system students addressed concerns about was Title IX.

There were multiple questions surrounding why WC was not addressing Title IX complaints, how the College mitigates harm in those cases, and the level of evidence needed for action in cases.

Dean Feyerherm, who oversees the Title IX program at WC, said that she does not want to discount what is said in Title IX proceedings as there are guidelines they must follow which are out of their control. 

Title IX cases do not go quickly and must avoid violating any party’s rights as they seek to mitigate and remedy hurt while working with survivors, according to Dean Feyerherm.

Mitigation is a case by case process, but may include interim suspension, removal from campus, no-contact orders, changing people’s schedules or residence halls, or even restricting parties from public places.

But still there was discussion around how to prevent Title IX and other discrimination cases before they happen through preemptive training programs.

Several questions, including one by sophomore Holly Williams, addressed the desire for diversity training to students, faculty, and staff for the fall 2020 semester. 

A notable moment occurred during Williams’ line of questioning, during which she repeatedly pushed the panel for a concrete commitment to new training by next fall.

“I felt like the questions had been evaded all night, and that was a big shock to me, because I thought this was an opportunity for those answers to come out,” Williams said in a follow-up interview. “I definitely was not planning on going up there and asking a hundred questions, but they kept not answering my question, and I did not want to give up and be satisfied or complacent.”

Regarding her original question, Williams said that she felt bias training lacked from any of her freshman curriculum. 

The class of 2022’s sexual assault and consent training included the program 3rd Millennium, however Williams believes “a passive website and one meeting…do not tackle with force what is a huge issue on college campuses specifically.”

Diversity training that helped explain white privilege or the different barriers that minority students face was not present, according to Williams.

There was also an anonymous question regarding sexual assault and consent training focused on athletics and Greek life.

Following the town hall, Landgraf sent an email to campus on March 5 promising that before the start of the new semester there would be training sessions for incoming students as well as student groups addressing consent, bystander intervention, survivor support, microaggressions, racial bias, and hate speech. 

In addition to programs that would make the College more accessible for incoming students, there were also questions surrounding ways to make the campus a safer environment for current students.

Prior to the town hall, the Black Student Union requested a safe space on campus where students of color can gather as students were congregating in living spaces during times of crisis — such as following bias incidents. The SGA offered their office as a safe space until a permanent place was identified. 

The location of the safe space was determined to be the first floor of Minta Martin Hall. This area was suggested because it is handicap accessible and large enough to have amenities like a prayer room.

However, there are concerns over the quality of the space as it was going through mold remediation with no students living on the floor.

Freshman Braxton Berry questioned whether the safe space was put in a location that is predominantly “moldy, dank, and not safe for students to live in.” 

Others, such as juniors Nicolina Capitanio and Ethan O’Malley, questioned why opening the safe space did not seem to be a priority. 

Dean Feyerherm said that she is working with Bates and Associate Dean of Students and Director of Residential Life Ursula Herz to make the space suitable for students. She asked that students try the space, and if it does not work, they will retry.

They currently have a list of what the safe space needs with prices to make funding easier to receive.

Bates added that the space is good for gaining leverage on campus, and that its proximity to freshmen and other groups like Hillel is a strength.

Another proposed method to create a safer environment for students was to hire a chief diversity officer whose full-time responsibility was matters of diversity. 

Students also expressed a desire for the College to attract more faculty of color.  

Some students felt that the administration puts money over student safety, explaining that some are transferring from WC because they do not feel safe and that money should be put to diversity and safety issues. 

Part of the money from the Forge A Legacy campaign was for faculty excellence and access and affordability, two of the founding pillars. However, freshman Queen Cornish questioned where the money actually went.

Of the $150 million raised, $38.44 million was raised for endowed and annual scholarships, according to a Dec. 17 newsletter. 

Forge a Legacy also partially funded the Washington Scholars program, which helps intensify diversity on campus by creating opportunities for disadvantaged students to attend WC, according to Landgraf. 

The College has an average discount rate of 65%, with the College paying $2 million to cover the rate. 

Other targeted projects for Forge a Legacy were the construction of facilities around campus, such as the Cromwell Center, the Hodson Boathouse, the Semans-Griswold Environmental Hall, the Eastern Shore Food Lab, and the River and Field Campus. 

Regarding attracting more faculty of color to the College, Dean DiQuinzio said that they have held training for departments that were hiring and she worked hard to assure a diverse hiring pool.

However, they not only have not hired many faculty recently, but Dean DiQuinzio said that “I have not been able to attract minority faculty candidates to come here and take jobs for the salaries that we have been able to offer, and in some cases faculty candidates of underrepresented groups have been pretty explicit to me about their concerns about living in this community — and they did not just mean WC — they meant the wider community. So these problems are intertwined.” 

According to Associate Professor of Spanish and Chair of the Diversity Committe Dr. Elena Deanda-Camacho, most faculty members are teaching classes that are engaged with and address issues of diversity, equity, and equality. 

“Right now, the Diversity Committee with the full support of the Faculty Council are moving the faculty into a more intentional approach to teach diversity issues and enhance cultural competence and literacy to WC students,” Dr. Deanda said. “We are trying to prepare them to become engaged, aware, and active citizens.”

Some questions got heated regarding the College’s reaction, or lack thereof, towards bias incidents. One anonymous question asked if the Public Safety officer who did not immediately report the incident involving a truck revving its engine at a student to the administration would be terminated, another asked why such events are labeled as “bias incidents” and not “hate crimes.”

McFayden said that the incident was not immediately reported because no racial slurs were said. After the incident, he discussed protocol with department members and clarified that all incidents that are reported as bias incidents should be reported to him immediately.

Emotion remained heightened as students questioned the accountability of administration and culture of WC.

One freshman described how upon moving into WC, she experienced racism for the first time when her roommate did not acknowledge her family. 

Senior Gaviota Del Mar Hernández Quiñones urged the campus to be more respectful in aspects of diversity like names, citing her own instance of her name being spelled in different and incorrect manners across her student ID card, campus profile, and email.

In a follow-up interview, Del Mar Hernández Quiñones said that “it is a problem with the narrative of diversity.”

“The College has this narrative and really wants to go further with it, but they are not ready to deal with people that are actually diverse,” Del Mar Hernández Quiñones said.

Senior Felicia Attor discussed her four years of fatigue as students advocated for themselves, wondering how the College will keep its big promises when they did not keep smaller ones like sending out WAC alerts when bias incidents occur.

Freshman Jonah Nicholson also expressed weariness when he said that he was tired of only having conversations.

In response to Nicholson and other calls for action, Landgraf defined his “commitment to make sure [students] are safe, listened to, and this campus is open to the growing diversity cohort.”

“Unless something changes, unless you see meaningful changes that occur in the near future, then the next conversation we have should not be this respectful and polite,” Landgraf said. “You can basically demand that I leave here… You have that right. I am not going to defend what we have done in the past, I have tried. I can understand your view that it is not good enough. But I can also tell you that doing everything I can think of, everything I want to do, everything I need to do…we cannot get to where we want to be overnight.”

In a follow-up interview, Landgraf said, “in order for me to be here, I have a responsibility not just to the Board, because they can fire me tomorrow, but I have a responsibility to the faculty and to the staff and to you that I make this a better place for everyone… [But] if it becomes a dominant thinking process across the student body… if the student body does not feel that I am doing what is required here, you have a right to ask me to go away… By putting this out, I put a marker down. It says this is what I am going to do, this is when I am going to do it, and you can hold me accountable.”

In addition to the promised action of establishing diversity training sessions, Landgraf and the administration promised to establish a Canvas page for Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Accessibility (I.D.E.A.) to check progress and keep the campus updated regarding relevant initiatives, according to the March 5 email to the campus.

The I.D.E.A. Canvas page was launched on April 7, according to Dr. Deanda.

“With this Canvas page, it is our goal to address the important concerns around the events that took place in the last few months that threatened the physical and emotional well-being of our community members. We hope to streamline the students’ concerns and the commitments made by both this committee and the administration,” Dr. Deanda said.

The Diversity Committee hopes to launch a website for the campus as well, but for now intends to use the Canvas page as a “way to communicate with the campus community both as a way to receive feedback and as a way to demonstrate our plans and our progress on such plans,” Dr. Deanda said.

The Canvas was originally supposed to launch on March 23, but was delayed due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and its effects on campus.

The email also said that the administration will host an annual town hall every spring semester as well as distribute regularly scheduled campus climate surveys. 

“This is unprecedented,” Dr. Deanda said. “This semester and the last one there were many ‘firsts’ in our campus community — the first walk-out, the first stand-off, the first town hall. Town halls would allow us down the road to talk, discuss, and come together as a community in the collective solving of our problems.” 

Moving forward, students hope to see continued participation in initiatives to improve the campus climate.

“It is not about how many people of color you enroll, it is how are you going to make sure students of color want to call their friends back in high school and ask, do you want to come here,” Del Mar Hernández Quiñones said.

This is not a goal for administration alone but students in places of privilege, according to Williams. 

“When [minority students] are being silenced or voicing what is going on and not being heard, we need to act on that and step in and be side-by-side with them,” Williams said. “The student body here is an unstoppable force. No matter what we feel we do not get from the administration, when we stand together, we are better united than divided.” 

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