Recent BERT email mishandles a bias incident that was reported anonymously

By Riley Dauber

Opinion Editor

            On Monday, Nov. 28, Washington College’s Bias Education Response Team (BERT) sent an email to current students, faculty, and staff detailing recent bias incidents on campus and how the team handles them.

According to the Chair of BERT and Assistant Dean for Student Engagement and Success Tricia Biles, the email was in collaboration with all members of BERT, and was reviewed by communication and marketing, as well as the presidential cabinet.

            BERT has “received sixteen new reported incidents of bias” since Oct. 18, according to the email. Charts and statistics in the email detail specific incidents, including three cases of “racial slight,” three cases of “racial slur – verbal,” and three cases of “gendered slight – verbal.”

            According to Dean of Students and Title IX Coordinator Greg Krikorian, “The vast majority of those [incidents] would be classified as slights. Somebody’s treating someone in a way that they felt disrespected and impacted as it relates to bias. The vast majority of those are not actionable.”

            Despite the severity of the bias incidents, one would hope that BERT would handle these situations with respect and grace, as well as identify the students making these racial, gendered, and homophobic slights. Since WC preaches diversity and acceptance, it is crucial that BERT and others in positions of power on campus work to mitigate these incidents.

            However, BERT tends to focus more on campus education and outreach than holding people accountable.

            “The responsibility of [incidents] not happening is actually a community responsibility. Seven people on a committee don’t typically change much. To change the environment is a responsibility of all members of this community, starting with our students,” Krikorian said.

            Even if BERT is not working toward holding those accused of bias incidents accountable, they are still poorly handling recent incidents, as shown in the email.

For example, the email shared many details about a recent incident that was meant to remain anonymous.

According to Biles, BERT was hoping to be transparent in the email by explaining the team’s process in handling specific bias incidents.

“We have gotten a lot of feedback [from] students who were concerned that the College is not responding to bias incidents or taking them seriously. So, to include a generalized example of how we do respond to an incident – without details that would be revealing of anybody’s identity – we thought it would be helpful to give students a sense of security and trust that the system is working,” Biles said.

Krikorian pointed out that the paragraph only details the situation, not who witnessed the incident.

“There is no student identifying information in [the email],” Krikorian said.

However, many students found this decision inappropriate, considering the fact that many were already familiar with the situation. Speculation on social media, specifically the anonymous platform YikYak, following the incident informed many students of what occurred. Seeing these familiar details in the email led students to realize which situation was addressed.

            “It wasn’t their place to say [what happened]. If the student wanted that information out, the student would have said. It’s anonymous,” Student Government Association’s Secretary of Diversity and Inclusion junior Hailey Sutton said. “You’re already taking steps backwards to make people not want to come to you. You know people don’t want to report anything. It takes a village to get somebody to even speak about what happened to them.”

            Although BERT was attempting to explain how they process and respond to bias incidents in the email, many students read this section as revealing crucial information about an incident that was reported anonymously. The lack of confidentiality may discourage students from reporting bias incidents in the future.

            In the email, BERT wanted to emphasize the resources they share with students who witness a bias incident instead of explaining the accountability process.

            “Our primary action is to support anybody who has been impacted negatively by a bias. We do have a letter that we can send out of support that outlines the different resources available, like counseling, like the wellness advocates and peer support. So, we support anybody impacted, and then we talk about any educational initiatives that can be implemented,” Biles said.

            One section of the email caught some students’ attention – and not just because it is in bold font.

            According to the email, “We encourage you to seek understanding and condemn unjust acts – but not your fellow community members. Every individual in our community has value and is worthy of dignity – even those with whom you disagree, who hold different values, or who you believe have behaved badly. Everyone deserves both civility and due process before judgment.”

            While BERT may have had good intentions while writing this email, the bolded section says that students should not condemn others who are accused of bias. How is the College meant to hold people accountable if they ignore the people committing bias incidents?

            “Why should we recognize bad behavior when they’re going to continuously do it? That’s why this keeps happening; because we’re trying to make them seem like they’re part of the community,” Sutton said. “I’d rather shame them for making them feel like they can do this then accept them and lose a member of our community [because] you don’t know how that incident could impact them. But we know how this incident is going to impact the [perpetrator]; [the incident] is going to make the perpetrator feel bold, and they’re going to keep doing it. So, no, I’m not going to accept them with open arms.”

It is disconcerting to see the recent bias incident publicly addressed in this email, despite the fact that the situation was reported anonymously. Although the email encourages students to come forward and report bias incidents, the way the team handled these issues does not leave students with much hope.

The team’s attempt at transparency backfired, because not only does it detail an anonymous report, but it also left students wondering what the process is like for holding students accountable and determining whether or not the report was true.

Even if it is not BERT’s main responsibility to interrogate students and determine if these bias incidents did occur, the email’s rhetoric encourages readers to unconditionally accept their fellow peers, even if they have slighted someone.

“Why should we not charge them when they’ve publicly harassed somebody in our community?” Sutton said.

BERT needs to recognize this misstep. They also need to refocus and consider holding people accountable for their biased actions, or else these situations will keep occurring. Educating and providing resources can only go so far; direct actions and accountability must be present in this process.

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