by Cecilia Cress and Olivia Montes
During First Year Orientation, many members of the Washington College campus community witnessed a bias incident prior to the start of the fall semester.
According to an email sent by the Office of Student Affairs, during a scheduled Orientation session on Aug. 25, the interactive polling app SLIDO. An anonymous Q&A feature was used with the intended goal of “encourag[ing]…new students to interact initially by answering multiple choice questions.”
Before being prompted to utilize SLIDO, students began submitting anonymous questions through the platform, with some posts containing “inappropriate and offensive questions [and] comments” pertaining to race, gender, and sexuality.
Due to the visibility of the Q&A feature on the platform, those who had access on their smartphones could see the comments.
Following the incident, Peer Mentors met with administrative staff to acknowledge and process what occurred, as well as prepare for discussions concerning the importance of inclusivity with their mentee groups.
First-Year Seminar advisors had similar conversations with new students in order to fortify the College’s commitment towards maintaining a safe and inclusive environment.
The incident was also discussed during the Orientation Week session the following day, with Interim Dean of Students and Title IX Coordinator Greg Krikorian emphasizing WC’s “intolerance for such behaviors and biases,” according to the email.
According to the Office of Student Affairs, some students who are responsible for the derogatory content were identified and held responsible for their behavior. However, who those students are and what those punitive actions included were not disclosed.
The incident was also deferred to the Bias Education Response Team for further review and action. The College is also trying to identify any other students and hold them accountable.
“We [at BERT] are taking this very seriously because even though the response was handled quickly…we are committed to making this [campus] an inclusive, safe environment where all students belong,” Director of Intercultural Affairs Carese Bates said. “We are using this as an opportunity to strengthen our bias policies, and we want to continue to continuously have these discussions and make sure we are enforcing these policies.”
Since Student Affairs sent their email regarding the bias incident, students and student organizations across campus have expressed deep concern regarding what happened.
Peer Mentor and Cleopatra’s Sisters Vice President junior Bemnet Tola said that seeing the comments posted left her “heartbroken.”
“I honestly don’t even know what to say — I was not expecting this at all,” Tola said. “It was too early and too fast for me to even be prepared for this situation.”
“This whole issue goes against everything that [WC] stands for,” Peer Mentor Assistant and Student Government vice president junior Alexandra May said. “In these meetings…we tried to [hold discussions] in a light where everyone feels safe and comfortable while also addressing this issue before the school year starts.”
The WC Black Student Union released a statement on Instagram on Aug. 27, calling the SLIDO posts “disgusting, disrespectful, and unacceptable.”
“We all signed a diversity statement to commit to making an inclusive community on campus for all our students,” BSU said in the statement. “We expect that every student follows it.”
Other affiliated organizations across campus released statements regarding the incidents, including the Starr Center for the Study of the American Experience, the Center for Environment & Society, the Rose O’Neill Literary House, and SGA.
According to the Starr Center’s statement on Sept. 3, in addition to reinforcing their commitment to fostering an equal and equitable college environment for the entire student body, they also dedicated themselves to taking effective steps “to work toward removing the remnants of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other bigotry from our community.” They will also aim to “sponsor programs that directly address such issues; and to make clear that we will not tolerate those who violate the standards of civility, inclusivity, and respect for others.”
The staff of the Center for Environment & Society said the bias incident was “distressingly similar to those experienced in previous years” and “inexcusable,” and called to “support a diverse and inclusive student body, placing equity and justice at the forefront of our interactions with all segments of the community.”
In the email sent by the Rose O’Neill Literary House, said that “dehumanizing language is antithetical to everything we stand for, and those who choose to use it will find our doors closed,” called for “institutional transparency regarding the consequences of using such language, and for reflection and action regarding how these incidents can be prevented in the future.
“It is not enough to repeat yet again the hollow phrase, ‘this is not who we are,’” the email said. “In this case and every other, our actions show the world who we are.”
In a campus-wide email sent on Sept. 3, President of the College Dr. Michael Sosulski thanked students, staff, and faculty for their immediate action and support of others during the bias incident, while also reiterating the importance of ensuring all members of the WC community take part in maintaining a campus culture that embodies its dedication to promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion.
“While we are making progress, and it’s noteworthy that we have the support mechanisms in place to address such incidents, it is disappointing that we need these systems in place at all,” Dr. Sosulski said in the email. “We believe that each member of our community is valuable and deserving of respect for who they are, and in every single aspect of their being. Indeed, it is the diversity of backgrounds, cultures, perspectives, and life experiences that truly enriches and inspires our community.”
According to the email sent by SGA on Sept. 6, the student organization will “continue to implement initiatives that meet those demands of the past as well as the evolving needs of our present community.” This will include supporting fellow students and student groups, consistent engagement with campus staff, and push for diversity within WC academia.
Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students Dr. Sarah Feyerherm said that while she was disappointed the incident took place, it was “incredibly gratifying” to see the immediate peer and student actions taken to condemn the remarks, because “if you don’t push back on it right away and say something, during that time it feels like institutional consent,” she said.
Though many individuals commended the immediate action taken by the College, several felt that while communication stating what happened throughout campus is a good first step, there also must be ongoing action to ensure WC’s dedication to ensuring the respect and safety of all students is genuine.
“[The College] needs to make sure they take serious actions on the student[s] that are responsible for this incident,” Tola said. “This…keeps happening on our campus, and no one is doing nothing about it. We just keep having conversations about it, which is good, but we need action. If WC is not going to take serious action, no one is going to learn.”
“I think that [with] the response of faculty, administration, and even a lot of the mentees that I interacted with, it felt good to have those discussions, but there’s still a lot we have to improve on,” Peer Mentor Assistant and Student Government Association Secretary of Service and Community Relations junior Maegan White said. “The students are the heart of [WC] — everything is student-led…and it’s amazing, but that means all the support needs to be geared towards those students.”
The Office of Student Affairs also encourages students via the email to adopt a “see something, say something” course of action if they encounter bias or other xenophobic incidents, including microaggressions and hate crimes, on campus to provide assistance and support to those who may be negatively impacted.
“I stressed [this approach] to my mentee group because if you see something that is not okay, you need to report it, because if you don’t…we don’t have anything to do anything about it,” Peer Mentor Assistant sophomore Kennedy Jones said.
According to Bates, for WC to reach this goal of true inclusion, these and other necessary actions must be taken to ensure that all individuals and identities on campus are embraced, celebrated, and treated with respect.
“We need to realize we are beyond a diversity statement, and that diversity, equity, and inclusion has to be a continuous action item,” Bates said. “We have to move beyond discussions — we have to make sure that, [along with] the discussions that we have been having, we are actually putting actions behind it [and] keep this momentum going.”