College confronts hate crime, campus unites in action

Early Saturday morning, a student called into Campus Safety and Security reporting that the phrase  “All N****rs Must Die” was written in a dormitory. Originally described by the administration as a “racially hateful phrase,” the writing of the graffiti has since been filed as a hate crime by the Williamstown Police Department (WPD). Following collaboration with the Faculty Steering Committee (FSC), senior staff and students, President Falk cancelled all classes and athletic practices on Monday. It was the first time in over 30 years that the administration had decided to cancel class in response to a specific act of racial discrimination. On Monday, students, faculty and administrators organized a day of programming to address issues of discrimination, racial and otherwise, in the wake of the hate crime.

The graffiti was written on the wall directly outside the bathroom on the fourth-and-a-half floor of Prospect House, a dorm in Currier Quad. The exact phrase, which appeared uncensored on the bathroom wall, was not included in the original all-campus e-mail that Falk sent concerning the incident on Saturday morning. The phrase was not revealed to the community at-large until Falk sent a follow-up e-mail on Sunday evening in response to a series of student demands and student-driven conversations.

On Monday, all members of the community were strongly encouraged to attend an all-campus event on Paresky lawn featuring senior staff and student speakers, who addressed a crowd of well over 1000 people.

The incident was officially registered as a hate crime, which is a felony, after a group of roughly 80 students marched to WPD on Saturday evening. Maya Hawkins-Nelson ’14, Black Student Union (BSU) secretary and representative to Minority Coalition (MinCo), and Haley Pessin ’13 were the two students who officially registered the hate crime at that time. Campus Safety and Security and WPD have launched an investigation to find the perpetrator or perpetrators of the crime. Administrators and students are currently working to shape a committee that will enact proposals to address not just acts of racism, but also all other aspects of discrimination and how to foster a culture of open, safe discussions regarding diversity on campus.

Early events

At 11:30 p.m. on Friday evening, Lysa Vola ’13 went to use the bathroom on the fourth-and-a-half floor of Prospect House. About 40 minutes later, Vola returned to the same bathroom to find a message written on the wall outside the bathroom in black marker. The message read “All N****rs Must Die” in stacked letters to form a rectangle of text roughly 12 inches by 15 inches. “You couldn’t go to the bathroom without seeing it,” Vola said.

According to the Security log, Vola called to report the incident to Security at 12:33 a.m. Security dispatched an officer and the supervisor on duty to Prospect by radio at 12:35 a.m., and Security arrived at Prospect at 12:38 a.m; officers proceeded to take pictures of the writing, talk to Vola regarding the discovery and remove the writing from the wall.

Officers told Vola that they would contact the dean on call to inform him of the incident and that the dean would then contact her. Security left Prospect at 12:56 a.m.

Director of Security Dave Boyer received a call reporting the incident at 2 a.m. that morning. “I made a decision at that point to notify [Vice President for Campus Life] Steve Klass and Sarah Bolton via email at 2 a.m.,” he said. “At the time, given the early hour of the morning, it didn’t seem imperative to mobilize everyone necessary.” David Johnson ’71, associate dean of the College and dean of first-year students, was the dean on call Friday night. Johnson received an email at approximately 2:30 a.m. Klass, Bolton and Johnson did not open the e-mails until they awoke in the morning.

Boyer said that in hindsight, the correct decision would have been to notify everyone immediately so as to speed up the process of getting the information processed and out to the community. “Dean Bolton did express her concern to me. She would have wanted to have been called immediately so she could have responded to Prospect and been in a role to support students who were affected,” Boyer said.

Vola was also told by the Security officers who responded that they would let the dean on call know what had happened and that she should expect a phone call. Vola received no call that night, but did receive an e-mail around 6 a.m. that morning from Bolton. According to Vola, Bolton was deeply apologetic in the e-mail about not getting to speak with Vola the night of the incident.

“I remember waking up and looking at my phone and there’s this message,” Bolton said, describing her initial reaction. “I always look at my phone first before I do anything else. And you’re horrified. And then you think, ‘What’s happening out there? How am I going to reach all the students? What do we need to do?’ And then you have to go into that mode.”

Falk sent an all-campus email, co-signed by Bolton and Klass, at 10:03 a.m. on Saturday regarding the incident. The e-mail said, “It is both saddening and upsetting to report that a racially hateful phrase was written last night on a wall in a student residence hall. It did not seem targeted at an individual. The writing was removed and a full investigation begun.”

The vagueness of Falk’s e-mail fuelled a large portion of the discussion that has ensued since Saturday. Students were upset that the original e-mail to the College community did not include the specific wording of the graffiti, label the incident as a hate crime or instigate an immediate call for an all-campus forum or meeting to discuss the crime with interested students. Additionally, while administrators later said that there was heightened security at the Homecoming football game that afternoon, students criticized the College for a lack of visible security and explicit information that the graffiti contained a death threat message. “Because this wasn’t transparent, people didn’t feel safe,” Vola said.

After speaking on the phone, Vola and Bolton decided, along with Mike Reed, vice president for strategic planning and institutional diversity, to gather the leaders of several campus groups together to discuss the incident. Bolton contacted Zach Evans ’12, College Council (CC) community and diversity representative, CC co-presidents Francesca Barrett ’12 and Nick Fogel ’12 and other students she knew who serve as campus leaders for diversity issues at 3:33 p.m. on Saturday in order to schedule a meeting that evening.

There was increased Security presence at the tailgate and football game. Four WPD officers were assigned to the scene throughout the day in addition to 14 members of Security. At least four of these officers were stationed around the field in the balance between the tailgate area and the crowd areas beyond the tailgates. “[The officers] were performing general duties, but especially focusing on anything that looked like behavioral problems,” Boyer said.

The meeting of select campus leaders along with Bolton and Reed, held to discuss how the College would address the event moving forward and to allow students to voice their feelings of fear, anger and pain, began at 7 p.m. on Saturday.

At 9 p.m., about 40 students left the Hardy House meeting to march to the Williamstown Municipal Building on North Street to talk with WPD and file the incident as a hate crime. These students were joined by approximately 40 other students at Paresky on their way to the police station.

Evans stayed behind in Hardy House to run communication between the students who left for the WPD march and the administrators and students who remained in Hardy. “I definitely think that meeting was when the levies broke,” Evans said. Former CC Co-President Ifiok Inyang ’11, who was on campus for Homecoming, and MinCo chair Roop Dutta ’12 also remained in Hardy to continue the conversation with a few others.

Falk was at the Mike Reily ’64 commemoration dinner when the 7 p.m. meeting began. Bolton and Reed contacted Falk to inform him of the unfolding reaction; he then arrived at Hardy House around 10 p.m. along with Klass. After Falk arrived, Barrett, who was among the students at WPD, was contacted; about 50 students soon left the municipal building so as to be included in the conversation about to occur with Falk and Klass present. This meeting on Saturday night lasted until 11:30 p.m.

One of the demands at the Hardy House meeting on Saturday night was the precense of more Security officers at the scheduled BSU party at Goodrich that night, a request with which Security complied. “We had four officers scheduled that night under normal circumstances, and we decided to put three additional people in our vans [around the area],” Boyer said. WPD was also on scene with two to three officers present for the duration of the party.

By the end of the Hardy House meeting on Saturday night, those present had decided to reconvene in Goodrich Hall at 12:30 p.m. on Sunday. Bolton, Klass and Reed all confirmed that the possibility of cancelling classes on Monday did come up at Saturday night’s evening, thought it was not yet a fully-formed demand of the students.

Bolton, Falk, Reed and Klass were present at Sunday’s 12:30 p.m meeting, as were the group of students spearheading discussion in Hardy House the night before. Additional students who heard word of the meeting – largely through MinCo listservs – and faculty were also present.

Students took this opportunity to present several demands to the administration: the cancellation of classes on Monday to allow time for an all-campus meeting to address the hate crime; a second e-mail that included full disclosure of the content of the graffiti, an apology regarding the initial administrative response to the incident and an articulation to make clear that the writing of the graffiti was a hate crime; the formation of a committee that would address how the administration would respond to future incidents; and for members of Psychological Counseling Services to be made available and Security to be available on call for those who felt unsafe.

Discussion of the lack of clarity and missing sense of gravity in Falk’s original e-mail continued to shape the discussion, particularly in relation to the demand for an administrative apology.

Yesterday, Reed explained his rationale for supporting the initial e-mail. “My feelings initially – and there’s still some of that – were not wanting to help people to accomplish their ugliness,” he said regarding the decision to leave out the explicit text of the message in the e-mail. “But the reality of it is once it’s out there, it’s out there, and there’s no way of managing or controlling it. What I was sensitive to was not really wanting to expose people to those exact words without having a forum for discussion and exploration,” he added.

Senior staff then met with all members of the FSC on Sunday afternoon to address the demands. Meanwhile, student organizers planned to meet at Hardy House at 7 p.m. that night to continue the discussion about how to respond to the senior staff’s ultimate verdict.

Canceling classes 

Dean of the Faculty Peter Murphy said that the decision to cancel classes on Monday was ultimately Falk’s, though Falk explained at Sunday’s meeting in Goodrich that protocol required him to consult the FSC before making such a decision.

“[The FSC] very generously came in [Sunday] afternoon and sat with us while we all thought it through. But the decision didn’t fall on them,” Murphy said.

“It was a long conversation and it was not an easy decision,” Reed said regarding the verdict on class cancellation. At the 12:30 p.m. Goodrich meeting, Reed originally said he did not support the decision to cancel classes, though he had changed his mind by Monday. “Obviously, I think the decision to cancel classes was a good one,” he said yesterday, in the wake of everything that occurred on Monday.

Murphy outlined two reasons for cancelling classes on Monday. “The first is that it is a very strong intervention in the daily rhythms of the College, an intervention that seems appropriate given the gravity of the event and the issues we are dealing with. It is a form of acknowledgment,” he said. “The second is that it just did not seem possible to rush into the work of the week without taking a breath, pausing for reflection and, if possible, some beginning of community recovery.”

The faculty were informed of class being cancelled at the same time as the students, when Falk sent his second all-campus e-mail addressing the event at 7:56 p.m. on Sunday evening.

Monday’s events

Once students in Hardy House were informed by Bolton in person on Sunday evening that Monday’s classes and athletic practices were cancelled, they began organizing safe spaces for discussion that evening as well as planning events for Monday to address the hate crime and discriminatory culture in general. Students were made aware of the following day’s events through several e-mails sent Sunday night from a variety of campus organizations.

Following a solidarity march at 10 a.m. that led community members from Currier Quad through various points on campus to Chapin Lawn, well over 1000 people gathered to hear keynote speeches from the steps of Paresky. Keynote speakers spent an hour addressing the crowd that had gathered.

Falk spoke first; he spent a significant proportion of his speech articulating his personal response to the hate crime. “A horrible, racist attack was scrawled on the wall,” he said.

“For me, [finding out] was like being punched in the gut, being punched in the face,” Falk also addressed the fact that saying the word “n****rs,” part of the Prospect graffiti message, out loud was impossible for him on a personal level. “As a human being, I can’t bring myself to say it, I just can’t,” Falk said in his speech.

“All of the events on Monday were simply a critical moment for us,” Falk said in an interview yesterday. “As I said in my remarks [on Monday], I think it was a moment where we, and I think I in my particular role, had to make it clear that there was no moral ambiguity about the situation. I had to make clear my personal outrage and our institutional commitment to the kind of accountability we are responsible for.”

“The purpose of the speech was not to repeat what was in the [second] e-mail,” Falk added. “The other thing I would note in that e-mail was that there were two apologies. Both of these apologies were completely heartfelt,” he said, referring to the apology for not including the full and explicit graffiti message in the original e-mail and the apology for including the content there, within that second e-mail.

Klass followed Falk’s speech at Monday’s event. “My heart has been broken by the events of these last few days,” Klass said in his speech.

Klass has since elaborated on his mindset during, leading up to and following his speech on Monday. “After 48 hours or so, you start to realize you feel really bad and you don’t know why … and then you realize it’s a form of grief creeping in,” Klass said.

Bolton spoke after Klass, and Reed was the fourth and final member of the senior staff who spoke during that hour. Reed said that he was coming before the crowd “as an administrator, as an alum and as an African-American,” and he emphasized in his speech that the community must put an end to a culture of silence around these issues. Reed apologized for believing that the content of the graffiti should not have been disclosed in full.

Rick Spalding, chaplain to the College, spoke next. Six students followed: Carrie Tribble ’13, Ernest Higginbotham ’14, Malik Nashad Sharpe ’14, Bianca Martinez ’12, Jallicia Jolly ’14 and Fogel.

After a break for lunch, students, faculty, staff, administrators and community members reconvened in Baxter Hall for an open microphone event that lasted from 2 p.m. until 6 p.m.

Students spoke about a range of issues, including acts of discrimination and bigotry that victimized them, acts of discrimination that they themselves have perpetrated, experiences with cultures of violence and cultures of silence on campus. The student speakers who took the microphone included people who had planned on speaking when they heard such an event was scheduled, as well as students who spoke more spontaneously after hearing previous testimonies.

“The most important thing is to listen, and to hear people’s stories and to feel like you can share your story,” Fogel said, articulating the significance of the open microphone portion and the priorities of the community going forward.

The last major item of programming on Monday was another meeting in Goodrich Hall at 7 p.m. that was intended to shape how the community would continue to respond to these issues and enact change regarding all types of discrimination and hatred in the community.

Student proposals for change 

MCC Director Liliana Rodriguez ’01 opened the meeting at Goodrich on Monday evening. “I want you guys, frankly, to dream pretty big,” she said to the crowd of over 150 students who had gathered to discuss ideas for change.

Barrett and Fogel moderated the discussion, which generated over 70 ideas in the course of an hour and a half. Henry Schmidt ’14 made the first proposal, initiating a discussion about a mandatory first-year discussion class, possibly for course credit, modelled on the First-Year Residential Seminar format that would provide a space to discuss these issues.

Students went on to make proposals that aimed within existing structures, like including more faculty at Storytime; aimed to abolish existing structures, like a proposal to abolish the Homecoming concert and redistribute its funding to diversity issues; and aimed to establish new structures, like a social honor code.

The possible creation of a social honor code became a major point of discussion. Students debated what that social honor code would look like and how enforcement of that honor code would work.

Among a series of more specific ideas, the formation of a committee – one of students’ original demands on Sunday – to spearhead implementation of these proposals was also a part of the conversation.

“One of the things that’s really important coming out of this is before the incident, a lot of student groups, like CC and MinCo, were tortured about how activism fit into their mission statement,” Rodriguez said, “and it bothered me that they weren’t seeing it as a core function of their purpose.” As a result, Rodriguez said that beginning now her goal is to ensure that “we’re never questioning that [core function] again.”

To distill this set of suggestions from the meeting, as well as the growing set of suggestions that students and other community members have been sending to Barrett and Fogel via e-mail and in person, a smaller group of students met last night to discuss how to proceed and decide how best to involve students.

A larger group of students will convene at 6:30 tonight, in advance of the weekly CC meeting, to further discuss these proposals. Barrett explained that she and Fogel, as well as the other key students involved, are considering how and when they will present these proposals to students. They have begun the process of separating these proposals into categories of ideas and will send an e-mail with this list either next week or after Thanksgiving break, pending further discussion. The e-mail will contain a mechanism for students to rank the proposals in terms of importance, and also to respond whether they think any one proposal should be discounted. Another project students are putting together is a mural that will express community responses to the hate crime.

Ongoing administrative response

Senior staff were asked not to be present at Monday night’s Goodrich meeting but are planning heavy collaboration with the committee that does come out of this event. Klass and Bolton said that administrators will be examining emergency response protocol as a result of the weekend’s events. “It’s a form of crisis management, because you always debrief on these things,” Klass said, explaining that part of that debriefing process will be evaluating the campus response to incidents like the Prospect graffiti. The administration is already working on changing the protocol that led Bolton to receive notification of the racial graffiti via e-mail as opposed to another more immediate measure.

“I think that of the many things that are going to come out of this, one that’s clearly critical to develop in consultation with students are some protocols on how to deal with these things in the future,” Falk said. “And I’m really looking forward to doing that carefully and collaboratively.”

“My sincerest hope is that we can have some concrete measures for moving our community forward,” Reed said. He said that one of the initial steps he would like to see is a revival of the Williams Speaks Up website that the deans, senior staff and students implemented for reporting offensive incidents following the Stand With Us movement in the spring semester of 2008. The last report posted on that website, “Graffiti in First-Year Entry,” was made on Oct. 22, 2008.

Reed also said that he thinks the College will inevitably return to “business as usual” and that the amount of initial response will dissipate, though he did articulate an opportunity for some form of progress on campus. “We will have to see what positive, concrete actions result from this. I’m optimistic that there will be some, and that the institution will change, albeit incrementally,” Reed said.

Falk also spoke to the administration’s presentation of the hate crime and campus response to the public beyond the College. “It’s being presented with total candor,” Falk said. “One of the wonderful things about social media and the world in which we live is that you don’t have the opportunity if you wanted it to share something different with the outside world from what’s happening here at Williams.”

Criminal investigation 

The investigation surrounding the hate crime is still underway. Security and WPD are coordinating their efforts to conduct this investigation. “We’ve talked to around 80-90 students at this point, through interviews where we’ve talked with people who swiped into Prospect Friday night as well as residents who live in the buildings, in addition to other names that have come up in the interviews,” Boyer said. “We’ve still got more to go, but we’re still talking to everyone whose name we have had access to at this point.” There was a report of a black marker being found in a stairwell at Prospect, but Security has not been able to confirm whether it was the marker used in the event.

“Right now there is no strong lead, but we continue to generate information and follow that to its end,” Boyer said, adding also that this weekend there were a number of students absent from the dorm due to athletic games or matches, which slowed the process of interviewing. Additionally, for many people it has been hard to recall what they were doing specifically for the 40-minute window of time that is being investigated. “We’re asking them now about if there’s anything at all that they can recall,” Boyer said of the people with whom Security is speaking.

Boyer also spoke to an “exhaustion factor” that everyone was under at the late hour of the discovery of the graffiti and subsequent Security actions coupled with the Homecoming events. He said that these conditions created an initial investigation that will need to be looked over again. “We’re going to look at everything to see if there is something we’ve missed or if there was something obvious that due to fatigue was overlooked,” he said.

As part of the investigation, Security is also pulling out files from incidents in recent years, using this information to compare handwriting samples and statements that may point to any similarities that are relevant to Friday night’s crime.

Bolton commented on the effect of the perpetrator’s identity in the larger scheme of the campus’s reactions. “I think we really need to move past insisting that it matters what kind of person it was – whether a student, alumnus, visitor or someone else. The impact on the community is about how the words affect people, how they interact with people’s lived daily experience here, what the meaning is of the way the community supports one another under these circumstances and how we can move forward to do better on all fronts,” she said.

The criminal investigation will continue to be part of the administration’s conversation regarding this hate crime, though the campus is now reacting to the much larger phenomenon of the lived experience of racism and all other types of discrimination.

Klass described the sense of both pain and triumph pervading campus. “It’s one of those moments you would love to have on campus, but you really, really, really never want it to be at this cost,” he said. “Seeing people supporting each other in this way and standing up and learning on the spot in real time from people whose experiences they probably had made assumptions about, you genuinely cannot replicate those moments, but you also deeply wish they didn’t come from this much pain.”