Campus / Campus Safety / News / May 1, 2008

Politically motivated harassment reported

Students allegedly reported cases of harassment to President Roger Taylor citing their political beliefs as the cause. The day following former Attorney General John Ashcroft’s speech in Harbach Theater, three officers of the Knox College Republicans approached President Roger Taylor Wednesday morning to inform him of numerous alleged incidents concerning several of their members.

Taylor called in Deans Bailey, Breitborde and Romano to sit in on the conversation. The students detailed incidents of being shoved, verbally harassed, spit upon, threatened and ridiculed by other students for bringing Ashcroft to campus.

“The students weren’t concerned with punishment being handed out,” said Romano. “They were more concerned with the mindset on campus that allowed this to happen.” Taylor requested that one of the students write down the alleged circumstances of the attacks so that they could be verified and remain undiluted by rumor.

“We were told that a student was spit upon,” said Dean Romano, “but we haven’t been able to verify that, yet. Right now we’re at the stage where we need to separate fact from fiction. It’s very easy for emotion to run rampant in a situation like this, and we need to patiently listen to everyone’s story.”

One student said that she had been shoved hard with elbows and shoulders in a hallway where crowding was not an issue. Another said a student leaned over and said “We’re gonna teach you a lesson,” in a low voice. Students have been jeered at while entering class, booed at, and in one case, called a “terrorist.”

None of the students who were allegedly attacked have identified themselves. Several were contacted but declined to comment. Neither the administration nor the Knox College Republicans who met with Taylor Wednesday morning felt comfortable releasing the names of the students allegedly attacked. Sophomore Ben Keathley, president of the Knox Republicans, was asked which officer would be submitting a written report to Taylor, but declined to identify the individual.

Other students came forward to discuss their feelings with Breitborde. On Wednesday afternoon, Breitborde had a student come in who was allegedly targeted. The student was unable to identify the perpetrators of the alleged harassment, but did say that all the students identified themselves as “Tom Tomorrow,” the pseudonym used by cartoonist and political satirist Dan Perkins.

The student came to Breitborde to discuss her feelings about remaining at Knox. In response to the meeting with the students and Taylor, Breitborde sent out an e-mail to the faculty. In it he described complaints made by students and commented, “These kinds of behaviors aren’t simply ‘conduct issues’ in students’ interpersonal relations; if accurate, they undermine the fundamental commitment of the college to provide an environment that encourages the respectful exchange of ideas, and the fruitful engagement with difficult and challenging ideas.”

Some professors responded to this message by responding to Breitborde or contacting their students with their thoughts.

“I haven’t heard the reports to which you refer,” wrote Professor of History Konrad Hamilton, “but I have heard reports of peaceful student protesters at the Ashcroft event being verbally and physically assaulted (kicked, not just booed or spit upon). I don’t know if these reports are any more or less accurate than those that you’ve heard, but I do hope that the President and the other members of the administration investigate all reports of misconduct surrounding this event thoroughly, and not just the claims of one specific group.”

The student referenced was junior Deana Rutherford. During Ashcroft’s speech she was one of the protesters who participated in the “die-in” and collapsed in the aisles of Harbach Theater. While on the ground, a Galesburg resident sitting in the aisle seat next to her kicked her. When Rutherford asked “Did you just kick me?” the short reply “Fire hazard” came back. Another report alleged that a student angrily shoved his way through the prone protesters on his way out of the theater, muttering “Get the f**k out of my way.”

Professor Elizabeth Carlin-Metz e-mailed students involved with the theatre department, saying “As individuals, we must evaluate the politics of the world in which we live, and choose how best to engage in politics that reflect our values and beliefs . . . When we abrogate the civil rights of any group of persons, we set the stage for the erosion of the rights of all.”

“This didn’t happen overnight,” said Romano. “We need to step back, assess, and reassess. We need to let the students talk about what Knox is becoming, and that’s a conversation the faculty or administration can’t necessarily step into. We can’t offer a faculty edict saying ‘thou shalt be nice.’ That’s just silly. We can facilitate and provide resources, but the students themselves need to talk this out.”

One group on campus, the Knox Democrats, agrees with Romano’s assessment. The Knox Democrats are currently in the process of putting together a series of forums and co-sponsored events to improve civility in discourse on campus. They hope to institute their program in the coming weeks.

While the students who contacted administration were not looking to punish the students who harassed them, both Romano and Breitborde commented that were a student to make a specific complaint about another student’s conduct the college has methods to deal with it.

“There’s no template,” said Romano, “each case is unique unto itself, and we’d find an appropriate solution. Students at Knox should be able to live, work, study and hold passionate ideals without harassment.”

“I’m hoping the faculty will rise up a bit here,” said Breitborde.”

He felt that faculty could assist with facilitating conversation.

“Mostly, though, we’re going to have to let it settle and see what happens,” he said.

“I was visited by three students,” said Taylor. “Two upperclassmen and a first-year came to inform me of several incidents, not necessarily just ones they were involved in. I was told that the day of the Flunk Day scare a student heard profanity outside his window and looking out was told “We are gonna teach you a lesson for inviting John Ashcroft to campus.’”

The student who was threatened said the threat seemed very sincere.

Another student came in to meet with Taylor later that day, saying they’d been personally attacked in the classroom, instead of their ideas. A third student related a similar incident even later that day.

“It strikes me that no student — young Republicans, SASS, Common Ground — no student should be subjected to intimidation by other students because of their views and expressions,” he said. He added that he didn’t feel the issue was pervasive — he saw it as isolated cases. Taylor also commented that this sort of behavior was not the first case related to civility on campus. He referenced the defacing of posters and flags earlier this year, saying “We’re failing students unless we equip them with the oral skills to become leaders. This kind of behavior doesn’t belong on this campus, but if they want to work on Fox News…”

The problem of civility and disrespect on campus is particularly troubling to Taylor, and he temporarily suspended the Sustainability Task Force to focus the resources of the college on solving this problem first.

Senior Maurice Harris, former president of the Knox College Republicans, was one of the students who met with Taylor Wednesday morning.

“We don’t want a witch hunt,” said Harris. “We hope the students realize what they did was wrong and come forward on their own. The punishment isn’t as important to us — we feel it’s more important to understand why this happened.”

Harris said part of this might have been because of the choice of speakers.

“Ashcroft is a controversial figure,” he said. “It may have been the wrong year to bring him; civility seems to have reached a new low this year.”

When asked about one of the protesters being kicked by a town resident during the speech, Harris felt that it was equally unacceptable.

“It’s sad, really. I was angered and saddened that people of any opinion would be attacked just because they didn’t agree with everyone else. I thought the student protester in the sundress was very tasteful, and while some of the protesters in the aisle were blocking the way, it was well within their rights to protest. The town resident has no right to do that,” he said.

Harris is hopeful that the behavior displayed now will not affect the Knox Republicans’ next speaker, which they hope will be Robert Anthony “Tony” Snow, a former White House Press Secretary for President George W. Bush.

“Actually, we were very encouraged by the speech. We managed to pull it off, despite everything,” he said.

Still, Harris finds it disheartening that students would engage in such disruptive behavior.

“If we can’t survive and get along in a school of 1,500 students, what are we going to do when we get into the real world that has millions of different views?” he said.

David Nolan

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