URI responds to bias-related incidents

Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In response to recent bias-related incidents, University of Rhode Island President David Dooley issued a campus-wide memo Feb. 23 stating that hate-related behavior would not be tolerated.

In the memo, Dooley wrote that in recent weeks, community members have shouted homophobic taunts from cars, written hateful words on whiteboards in classrooms, drawn a swastika on the forehead of a poster of Martin Luther King Jr., vandalized a mezuzah — which contains a scroll of Hebrew scripture — and written hateful statements in permanent marker targeting URI community members of Latin descent.

“Some students have the impression that the university has been hiding these things and hasn’t been doing anything about it,” said Tom Dougan, vice president for student affairs at URI. But that is not the case, he said.

“We did not have a good year last year,” Dougan said. In response, the university created a bias response team last spring whose protocol was implemented in September. Since then, the bias response team has received 23 complaints, 10 of which were classified as relating to bias or hate, he added. In three of the cases, students were found to be in violation of university policy and were punished accordingly.

“Assuming we identify who has committed the act, our sanctions can range anywhere from written reprimand to suspension,” Dougan said. One student arrested in the fall for hate-based vandalism is no longer a student at the university. But Dougan said he could not release specific information regarding the nature of the incident.

Dougan said perpetrators are often not able to be tracked down because incidents are a “drive-by kind of thing.”

The university also developed the position of chief diversity officer in conjunction with the bias response team. Kathryn Friedman, who was appointed Jan. 4 and reports to Dooley, will fill the role this year.

Friedman said most universities try to hide any incidents of bias-related behavior. “They don’t want it to affect their reputations,” she said. URI, by contrast, is working on a larger initiative to raise community consciousness so that students can feel “safe and secure in their intellectual and personal environment.”

As part of the effort to celebrate “community equity and diversity,” the university has facilitated discussions, trained residential leaders, offered diversity awards and sponsored Martin Luther King Jr. Week — a series of events that honor King’s efforts — in addition to a variety of other programs, Dougan said.

Friedman is urging students to “start to have a conversation about what it means to be a civil institution.” She advised students to “respond to things they see and hear,” since a problem in punishing bias-related incidents is a lack of witnesses.

The types of people targeted by these incidents varies, Friedman said, though she noted that LGBT students have been more frequent victims.

At Brown, LGBTQ Resource Center Coordinator Kelly Garrett said graffiti is the most common bias-related incident she has encountered. The center talks to victims after an incident has occurred and acts based on what kind of support they are seeking, she said. “We try to educate the community on why this is not a part of the Brown community standards,” she said.

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