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WFU responds to profiling complaints

WFU responds to profiling complaints
November 25
00:00 2014

Black students accuse campus cops of bias

Photo by Todd Luck Dr. Penny Rue, seated beside D’Andre Starnes, speaks.

The treatment of minority students at Wake Forest University by campus police and fellow students was the subject of a town hall at Wait Chapel on Thursday, Nov. 20.

The discussion was a follow-up to a town hall organized in February by an interracial trio of students – Emma Northcott, Marchel Ebron and Kristen McCain – in response to police shutting down a Jan. 25 party by Kappa Alpha Psi,  a national Pan-Hellenic Council or “Black Greek” fraternity.

Northcott said the party caused a lot of tension between students and the Wake Forest Police.

Emma Northcott with Marchel Ebron (right).

Emma Northcott with Marchel Ebron (right).

“It was just overwhelming police presence and monitoring of activities when there were no violent altercations,” she said. “And there was an arrest of a student when all he said was a curse word. He didn’t threaten anyone. I witnessed it myself.”

Ebron said black fraternity and sorority parties are given more scrutiny by campus police than events held by white Greek organizations. The first town hall, where students aired their grievances to faculty, exposed those concerns and others, such as minority students’ contention that they are asked for identification on campus a disproportionate number of times.

“We thought as students, we need to do something to rectify these problems that are occurring at every party,” Ebron said.

The first town hall was a shock to the system to many, including Dr. Penny Rue, vice president of Campus Life, who was among the panelists at last week’s discussion.

“As soon as I heard those stories, I knew we had a problem,” said Rue, who started her tenure at Wake last year. “I regret that I didn’t know it sooner.”

Longtime WFU Police Chief Regina Lawson  said she was  “somewhat bewildered” when she left the February meeting, dismayed that so many students didn’t trust campus police.

“I started processing some ideas about what it would take to change our relationship with our community,” she said. “I realized it would be a slow methodical process and that you can’t make these kinds of shifts overnight.”

Lawson said she ordered an independent review. It found that a disproportionate number of minorities were arrested, but found no evidence that an actual or intentional bias was behind the disparity.  All the arrests were justified, according to the review, which still suggested that changes be implemented. The department has a new Bias Incident Reporting and Response System, through which reports of bias will be reviewed and addressed. Unconscious bias training for WFUPD officers and staff will take place next month. Lawson also hopes to increase diversity in the department.

Students voiced some cynicism about the report. D’Andre Starnes, vice president of the campus’ Kappa Alpha

 Panelists (from left) D’Andre Starnes, Penny Rue, Rev. Stephen Boyd and Chief Regina Lawson.


Panelists (from left) D’Andre Starnes, Penny Rue, Rev. Stephen Boyd and Chief Regina Lawson.

Psi chapter, questioned if arrests were the best way to measure bias, and if the university would’ve published a report that made it look bad.

“Another thing I feel that most students feel is that this report is what we expected to get,” said Starnes, the only minority and only student on last week’s panel.

Starnes said after the first town hall, a fight broke out at another on-campus  Kappa Alpha Psi party. He said campus cops responded to the melee with more than two dozen police cars and by pepper-spraying students, including those who were not involved in the fray. Starnes said he was pepper-sprayed as he was trying to mitigate the situation.

Since that incident in April, Adam Goldstein, dean of students and associate vice president of Campus Life, said WFU has made many changes to how student events are held. Large law enforcement units are now discouraged at on-campus events. Students are now assigned as event resource managers and charged with keeping events orderly. The goal, Goldstein said, is not to have a police presence at events.

“The only ones that were helping students manage their events on campus in the evening were law enforcement, and law enforcement were using the tools that they were trained to use,” Goldstein, who came to WFU in July, said of the pervious policy.

During the student comment period, numerous other issues were brought up, including the heated topic of “chalking.” During WFU’s recent Discovery Day, which invites perspective students to visit the campus, chalk messages warning about a hostile environment for minorities were found on the sidewalks. Rue had called the messages “cowardly” in WFU’s student newspaper, the Old Gold & Black. At the forum, Melissa Harris-Perry, an MSNBC host who recently became a WFU professor, said she agreed with Rue’s contention.

Students defended the anonymity of the chalking, reciting some of the openly profane, racist and threatening remarks they’ve seen from fellow students, both online and in-person.

Harris-Perry

Harris-Perry

Harris-Perry explained her position to a group of students in the audience after the forum ended, saying she wasn’t calling the students cowards or their issues unimportant. She felt the anonymity of the messages interfered with their ability to be effective.

Melissa Clodfelter, associate director of the Personal Development Center, acted as the panel’s moderator and Dr. Stephen Boyd, a religion professor, also participated in the panel.

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Todd Luck

Todd Luck

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