The AU community gathered to discuss the racial incident, learn of the administration’s actions and resources available to students, and hear from students and other community members about what is most important to them.
University Chaplain Mark Schafer opened the meeting describing the Kay Spiritual Life Center as a sacred space for discussion and healing. Caleen Jennings, chair of the President’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion and professor of theatre in the Department of Performing Arts, introduced President Neil Kerwin who opened his remarks by stating this was one of the most disturbing acts on campus since he has been at AU.
Kerwin said the university is classifying this as a hate crime and that its intention was to instill fear. He said it expressed a despicable degree of racism targeting women of color, black women, and specifically members of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. He underscored the severity of the act and that the hate crime classification ensures whoever did this is brought to justice.
Kerwin emphasized that AU has to be a place for safety, where all feel treated with respect, and said he hoped the actions we put in place result in a clear message that this is unacceptable.
Fanta Aw, interim vice president for Campus Life, stated she is angry and disappointed, and has a responsibility and obligation to the AU community that she chose to be part of.
Philip Morse, assistant vice president for University Police and emergency services, explained that AU Police has the jurisdiction, authority and responsibility to investigate, is working with the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) and is speaking with the FBI liaison and its Civil Rights Division. He said community involvement is paramount and asked students for their help with any information about who may have been involved in this hate crime. Both MPD and the FBI agreed this incident meets the legal standard of a hate crime.
He introduced Captain Sheryl R. Crawley and two officers from the MPD Special Liaison Division who have pledged any resources we need to assist with the investigation.
Morse is distributing a flyer with information about the incident, the person they believe is responsible, photos, and a reward of $1,000 for information leading to an arrest. He and his team have received many good tips and have been working throughout the night. He thanked the community but underscored that it will be key to get information that will help lead them to the person responsible.
Jessica Waters, vice provost for Undergraduate Education and an AU alumna, acknowledged the impact on students’ education particularly because this happened right before final exams. She encouraged students to be in touch with their academic deans, academic advisors or the dean of students if they need support. The university will provide what students need to be successful. She shared a comment from a faculty member who said one of the best responses to bigotry is excellence and AU wants to help students be excellent.
Caleen Jennings offered that students could participate in PCDI Listens tonight at 6 pm in McDowell Hall Formal Lounge.
Phil Morse addressed questions of safety and outlined resources available to students. Anyone who feels unsafe walking home can contact 202.885.2527, or approach any campus police officer. He encouraged students to download the free Rave safety app, which is an immediate connection with Public Safety through GPS, a virtual escort. He offered individual or group meetings to discuss personal safety tips, and self-defense classes.
Students and alumni asked questions about concerns including use of the Blue Light surveillance system, whether the AU Alert system can include immediate notification of hate crimes, interest in seeing video of the person of interest, whether the university can apply zero tolerance to student conduct cases, and information on whether and how professors and staff are held accountable for bias against students.
Members of the community asked what the university has done or would do to prevent such acts from occurring in the future. This spring, AU altered the conduct code to include bias as an extending circumstance to treat such cases with appropriate discipline and security. This fall, PCDI and senior administrators will complete a rewrite of our current discrimination policy. The policy has been in place a long time and updated overtime with incremental steps, said President Kerwin. We need a total rewrite.
Others asked about how to increase transparency regarding conduct cases and personnel actions when students or employees engage in discrimination or acts of bias. Aw and Kerwin reviewed what can be shared, and what cannot. Within the conduct process, charges and outcomes are part of the student record, which is protected by FERPA. The findings and sanctions are not publicly shared. We recognize the need for more information in some form, and we will review options, said Aw.
As some students expressed their anger and frustration at multiple acts of racism they experienced at the university, some said they had considered leaving the university.
Captain Crawley of MPD said transferring is not going to fix this problem. “We fix it when you report it. This happens nationwide. Please don’t stand by and not report it,” she said.
University Chaplain Mark Schafer concluded the meeting by thanking everyone for treating the center as a sacred place and acknowledging there is work to be done.