The Torch

Call for Action: Gempesaw to Meet With Students Thursday

Harassment incident prompts students to push talks on race relations

TORCH PHOTO/AMANDA NEGRETTI

TORCH PHOTO/AMANDA NEGRETTI

Suzanne Ciechalski and Angelica Acevedo

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The hundred-plus students who have already publicly voiced their disappointment, frustration and anger with the state of race relations on campus will have the opportunity Thursday to bring their concerns directly to University President Conrado “Bobby” Gempesaw.

The session, expected to be announced to the University community on Wednesday, comes three months after students entered Newman Hall to speak with Gempesaw, and a week after a demonstration on campus in which students aired their grievances regarding how the University handles race relations.

The event will be held during common hour in Taffner Field House, Joseph Oliva, general counsel for the University, told the Torch Tuesday.

Oliva said he expects the format of the meeting with the president will be similar to last Thursday’s demonstration in the Little Theatre in which students took turns expressing their frustrations, criticisms and experiences on campus into a microphone.

“As I had heard the students, [they] wanted an opportunity to present their concerns directly to the University president,” Oliva said, “so he’ll be there to listen to those concerns.”

Oliva, who also serves as the vice-president for administration, was among the administrators who were present at last week’s student-run demonstration. It began with a gathering on the Marillac Terrace around 2 p.m. and ended some six hours later inside the Little Theatre.

That impromptu day-long event was sparked by students’ outrage over social media posts and text messages that involved racially charged words and harassment by white female students from St. John’s and another school directed toward St. John’s students who are black.

In an interview, Oliva said St. John’s became aware of that situation early Thursday. He said an investigation by the Division of Student Affairs revealed that more than one student received similar messages “over the course of the last year.”

Oliva revealed — without being asked — that the St. John’s student who they identified as the one who sent the messages is “not a student here anymore.” He did not identify that student. The Torch has learned that the other student who sent these messages attended Nassau Community College.

“The conduct of the individuals involved in sending these messages is disgraceful and hurtful,” Oliva said. “Their behavior stands in opposition to all that St. John’s stands for as a Catholic and Vincentian University.”

Oliva declined further comment on the specific situation, citing student privacy laws.

 

THE DEMONSTRATION


The racially charged messages were posted to social media on Wednesday by one of the St. John’s students who had received them.

Within 24 hours, students here organized an on-campus demonstration for Thursday.  

Several organizations — including the African Students Association (ASA), Haraya, Social Justice Exchange, Feminists Unite and Students of Consciousness — announced the protest via social media, using hashtags such as #IStandWithKumba and #IStandWithAdenike.

Kumba Koroma and Princess Adenike are St. John’s students who spoke out at the demonstration and identified themselves as having received the offensive messages. They both declined to comment when reached by the Torch.

ASA posted the screenshots on Instagram of the messages that were sent to Koroma, who is a member of their e-board. The group said the messages  were seen as “not only … an attack on one of our own, but as an attack on Africans as a whole.”

Koroma’s post on Twitter that included screenshots of the messages has more than 1,600 retweets and 1,500 likes.

At the demonstration inside the Little Theatre, Adenike tried to provide some background to her relationship with the student who she later learned had been sending her these offensive messages all semester. She said she had a class with the student in the fall.

At the same time, the phone calls and messages grew to the point that she said she felt as if someone was following her. She said she and her mother brought screenshots of some messages to the attention of Public Safety in November.

The Torch reached out late Tuesday to Oliva asking for comment on Adenike’s account of the situation. Through a spokeswoman, Oliva said “the first time the University learned of any racist messages or racist social media postings was Thursday morning.”

Following the students’ accounts of the harassment, various students took the stage and the conversation shifted toward other concerns regarding race relations on campus — namely students’ experiences with Public Safety, administration and faculty.

 

UNIVERSITY RESPONSE

Gempesaw addressed the situation through a university-wide internal communication Thursday night. The 278-word note was sent at 10:23 p.m., mere hours after the demonstration had ended.

Citing the University’s code of conduct, which prohibits any actions motivated by bias, Gempesaw said, “I condemn in the strongest possible terms any action that is hurtful to another person or group.”

Adding that he’s committed to creating a supportive and inclusive community, he said, “I understand the feelings of pain and frustration this incident evoked in members of our student body. I have been told by individual students that our campus climate has not always been welcoming and affirming to them. This saddens me very much.”

Oliva echoed these sentiments in an interview with the Torch on Tuesday. This was the second time in the last few months where he has cleared his schedule on no-notice to listen to students’ concerns regarding race on campus. The first was in November, when students walked into Newman demanding to speak with Gempesaw about issues such as the University’s celebration of Columbus Day, the conduct of Public Safety and a lack of diverse faculty hires.

On Tuesday, Oliva said the University is actively working to remedy some of students’ concerns. He pointed to initiatives that already exist such as the SJU Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion and an online reporting system and new programs such as department-specific training — which he said will begin with Public Safety — and a campus climate survey that will come out this spring.

Student Government Inc. President Frank Obermeyer also issued a statement online Thursday in response to the situation, highlighting some of the ways in which students can report incidents, and encouraging students to join last week’s demonstration.

“It is  on all of us to maintain a campus that is respectful of the dignity of each individual, and we hope you’ll join us in keeping our campus safe,” he wrote.

And a spokesperson for Nassau Community College confirmed an investigation is underway there into the messages sent by one of its students.

“As an institution, we condemn in the strongest terms acts of uncivil behavior, including racist expressions and bullying or threatening remarks made in person or over social media,” NCC  President W. Hubert Keen wrote. “We have zero tolerance for conduct or hate speech that is detrimental to another person or group.”

The school declined to identify the student accused of sending the messages or comment on her status there.

TORCH PHOTO/NICK BELLO
Students shared experiences of racism at SJU in the Little Theatre as administrators and other students listened from the audience.

 

Editors note: A correction to this article has been made as of Feb. 11 at 11 p.m., instead of “resident W. Hubert Keen” it should state “President W. Hubert Keen.”

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Call for Action: Gempesaw to Meet With Students Thursday