Like many students, Chris Casillas didn't feel the need to read the EMU student code of conduct or the Housing Department's guide to campus living. However, after February's racial incident in Best Hall, he wishes he had.
"I have to go to a hearing with Conduct and see that girl again,” Casillas said. “I have to defend myself when I shouldn't even have to."
"That girl" is his former suitemates’ girlfriend, who hung up a naked black baby doll for Casillas to find early February 11. With the Washtenaw County Prosecutor refusing to charge her and the suitemates with ethnic intimidation, justice for Casillas is left to Eastern's Conduct office -- and their vague policies regarding hate incidents on campus.
This, coupled with the university’s Housing and Residence Life’s handling of the Best Hall case, does not sit well with students.
There have been multiple instances of racist acts on campus, from the “KKK” and “Leave N------” graffiti in 2016 to various acts of racist vandalism in bathrooms and stairwells around campus. However, Housing and Residence Life allegedly had no reason to write policies addressing the safety of their residents of color-- until the Best Hall “incident.”
“Our protocol is general for any conduct case,” said Director of Housing Jeanette Zalba. “But we don’t have a formal protocol for things like this. We started to draft one and we’re actually done with it. Like a racist or a biased incident response, we were actually working on it just this year because we added a diversity and inclusion committee to our staff.”
First referred to by administrators as a “bias incident”, the Best Hall incident occurred when first year resident advisor Casillas found a naked black baby doll hanging by a belt noose in his shower in the early hours of February 11. The doll hung from a belt, with the suitemates failing to remove it. According to the police report, Casillas recorded his finding via a Snapchat video, which in turn found its way to social media before being reported to Housing and the Department of Public Safety.
The act and lack of public response from Housing sparked outrage, with a student rally taking place the next day, Tuesday February 12, in front of the residence hall. There, the gathered crowd expressed frustration at the recent events, especially as the perpetrator insisted that the act was only a “prank.” EMU NAACP President Kya Fordham used the time to issue several demands to the university and Housing, including the demand that there be specific punishments organized for campus hate crimes.
Following the rally, Fordham told the Eastern Echo that her and Zalba had brief conversation about the demands.
“[Zalba] seemed as though she wanted to meet and then it was like crickets. Then after I reached out to her to meet up, there was no email back, she didn’t reply. So, I didn’t get a chance to meet with her and I think that says a lot.”
Based on outrage from the student body, Fordham told the Eastern Echo that students value transparency in university communication.
“We don’t anything to be sugar-coated, we don’t need anything to be made to look cute. I think the problem the university did was that they made it seem like it was a watered-down situation and did really know the severity.”
Casillas said that he helped President James Smith draft his statement to the university, reporting that they discussed the matter for at least two hours on Wednesday, February 13. Yet, despite this contact, Casillas says that he feels that the university and HRL has not done enough, a feeling furthered when the Washtenaw County Prosecutor decided against pursuing ethnic intimidation charges against the guilty party.
The ethnic intimidation charge, as recommended by the police department, was refused as the prosecutor felt that the incident did not fall into the definition, as Casillas was not physically assaulted during the racist act, nor was his property damaged. If the charge had been pursued, the perpetrator could have faced imprisonment of two years or less, a fine of $5,000 or both.
Casillas could pursue the ethnic intimidation charge via a civil case, an avenue that he has not yet explored in the hopes that the university does the right thing. “Bare minimum, she should be expelled,” he said.
In the time since the incident, Casillas says that he is “haunted” in the aftermath, describing how he is failing a class and will most likely lose out on joining the nursing program due to the stress and past trauma the incident has resurfaced for him. Added to that? The lack of protection and support from Housing.
Casillas reported that two of his coworkers had found the doll used in the racist act during fall semester room checks and only received a “slap on the wrist” for not reporting it. He also alleges that higher-ups in Housing threatened to dismiss him for talking to the media about the incident, with none of his coworkers checking in on him and his mental health after the event.
This, as well as Casillas recent termination from the department, seems to go against Director Zalba’s statement that the incident was an “injustice” against a “family member” in the department.
“They kept me ineligible to come back next year. I know it’s because of this [incident],” he said, going on to explain that he had been on probation due to such things as not reporting an incident in a timely fashion (due to working to solve it) and not being behind the building’s front desk during duty, as outlined in the resident advisor work agreement.
“I was supposed to have my appeal on that Friday [Feb. 15] after everything happened to try and get off of probation, but they kept me on probation because I wasn’t at the desk from 7 p.m. to 9 p.m. [for duty]. So then I got my termination letter saying that I will not be rehired for next year,” Casillas said.
“I feel like I should be d--- near hung myself,” Casillas said when discussing how the department failed to take the incident seriously, especially when it came to light that the doll had been used in previous pranks and jokes, including the suitemates filling the baby doll with water and drinking it from “the vaginal opening” and posing the doll with a knife, as recorded in the police report.
“A lot of RAs of color have complained about not being heard and not being treated fairly,” said Fordham. “There have been incidents before that doll incident that happened with RAs who are not of color and they have received far less punishments, far less intimidation than Chris did by simply exposing a racial incident.”
Despite Housing moving the suitemates to a new and separate space from Casillas and the perpetrator being banned from campus housing, Casillas insists that the university has to take charge of what happened, citing how he “shouldn’t even have to” go to the Office of Wellness and Community Responsibility hearing to argue against the perpetrator.
“There should have been a law or policy in place, but the system wasn’t made to help the black students,” he said, adding that “at the end of the day, I’m a disposable staff member [to Housing].”
The debate for a new policy at Eastern is not a new one, nor is the possible frustration from the lack of severity in Michigan’s ethnic intimidation law, which is the only thing addressing hate crime across the state.
During a public Africology and African studies panel on Feb. 21 titled, “What is Racism?,” six panelists were asked complex questions related to racism. Attorney Mark Fancher, using his background in law, spoke about the technicalities behind laws that come short in using the word “racism.”
“Racism comes down to the power both actual and perceived that a person might have over another,” Fancher said. “The laws on race are based on conduct and intent. It speaks in terms of discrimination, not racism.”
If such is the case with the laws on race and hate, then what is there to be said about the policies of a university? Looking through HRL’s Guide to Campus Living and university policies, one wouldn’t think that Eastern Michigan University has a racism problem. After all, nowhere in the rules are there any policies specifically addressing hate incidents on campus.
Some could argue that there have not been enough hate crimes occurring at Eastern to warrant a specific policy, justifying this claim with the zero hate crimes from 2015 to 2017 as reported by the university in its 2018 annual security report. Yet, according to the numbers that Eastern’s police department reported to the FBI, there have been more than enough hate crimes to constitute a university policy.
As reported to the FBI, there have been 12 hate crimes since 2014 at Eastern Michigan University. Of this number, eight of these crimes have been racially motivated, with two being motivated by homophobia and the remaining two motivated by religious bias. However, Geoff Larcom, university spokesman, said that these numbers were not recorded on the annual campus security report as the crimes had to do with destruction of property instead of harm against a person directly.
In the 2018 Guide to Campus Living, as given to every resident upon arrival and move-in for the academic year, there is no mention of how a hate incident or even student on student offenses such as bullying or assault will be handled. Though it could be seen as covered under the broad and vague section 2.20 on page 38 of the guide, where “actions that endanger the health, safety and welfare of a person or group” is prohibited in the halls, there is no explicit language addressing it.
At most, by the Housing and Residence Life rules, perpetrators of hate incident/interpersonal offenses could be punished by the department for “aiding or abetting another person in committing and act that violates the OWCR, Guide to Campus Living Policies and Rules or State of Michigan law.” While this statute does allow for the consideration of Michigan’s ethnic intimidation law, it is still clear that, at least presently, there is nothing protecting EMU residents from hate crimes.
Former EMU employee Joshua McPhatter has been a full-time professional housing employee for five years. For three of those years, he worked at Washington State University as a full-time hall director, then as the Hoyt and Pittman Hall complex director for two years at EMU and served on the diversity and inclusion committee for EMU housing.
“As a member of the diversity and inclusion committee, we are currently going through these [biased incidents],” he said. “I think something [student staff] often forget is to check up with the resident afterwards.”
Following the Best Hall incident, McPhatter said that there was a professional staff meeting to talk about how are students feeling and what they’re saying about the impact of the incident.
“Depending on scale, we might have a floor meeting, we might have a whole building meeting, we might have several meetings in several locations, which email do we send out,” he said. “But a lot of it is done through our central leadership.”
As for Eastern’s more general policies and rules, the only language addressing interpersonal offenses and incidents such as the Best Hall incident is the policy on harassment and bullying. Under this section, these acts are again indirectly and vaguely prohibited via the language,which is as follows:
“Intimidating conduct which would cause a reasonable person to feel as though there was an imminent threat to the health and safety or personal property of themselves or another individual” and “pervasive conduct directed toward another person or group that results in the intimidating, humiliating, degrading or otherwise harming another person or group” are prohibited.
With the Board of Regents responsible for reviewing university policies on a rolling basis every three years and creating/approving new university policies, there is a question as to why there has not been a policy implemented explicitly protecting students of color from hate displays on campus within the recent years. While university policies can be proposed by EMU community members and other university officers, the board is the only group able to approve and propose new policies.
University Spokesman Geoff Larcom made clear that the policies had been reviewed and revamped during 2016 and 2017, going on to say that EMU’s harassment and bullying policies as currently outlined cover actions that could be considered hate crimes. However, due to legality issues and perceived bias, most of the incidents at Eastern would not be considered hate crimes.
Furthermore, when developing policies, free speech plays heavily into what the university can and cannot say, explained Sean Woolf, associate director of Eastern’s Office of Wellness and Community Responsibility.
“In general, when you write a policy, you want it to be all-encompassing so it gives you the latitude to use it the way you need to use it,” Woolf said.
“In the 80s and 90s, a lot of schools did have [more inclusive policies] and a lot of schools had stuff in their codes around hate speech and things of those nature and those were repeatedly struck down by the courts,” Woolf said. “They were repeatedly stuck down by the courts as free speech violations. From what I understand, the schools defended them as being ‘fighting words,’ which is something that’s not protected. The courts did not accept that as being viable.”
Despite a university’s best effort to protect students of marginalized identities, various policies could be flagged by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, or FIRE, for violating students using free speech. FIRE seeks to defend student rights in the American higher education system, including the rights to free speech, due process, legal equality, religious freedom and sanctity of conscience. Students can submit cases of rights violations to FIRE for further assistance if so desired, with the organization also rating policies based on the level of free speech allowed by the school.
What does that mean for policy-writing? The more inclusive the policy, the more likely it is to be flagged in the “red” category by FIRE-- that is, the policy “both clearly and substantially restricts freedom of speech“. As it stands, EMU’s own policy on harassment and bullying is currently flagged “yellow,” as it could “restrict a more limited amount of protected expression or, by virtue of their vague wording, could too easily be used to restrict protected expression.”
An example of a red-flag policy that could seem ideal to EMU’s marginalized students comes from Pennsylvania’s Lincoln University, which states: “The University does not tolerate discrimination against any individual, whether actions, words, jokes or comments, based on an individual’s sex, race, color, national origin, age, religion, veteran status, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, marital status, genetic information, disability or any other legally protected characteristic.”
With the path to new policy complicated at the least and unlikely at the most, what is EMU doing to help their students? Larcom highlighted courses of action, both current and in the future, on behalf of President James Smith and Chairman of the Board of Regents, James Webb. (Both Smith and Webb were not available for comment.)
According to Larcom, EMU’s Housing and Residence Life will be implementing Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) training for student and full-time staff, with national expert Loretta Van Pelt leading the sessions. Continuing on the DEI route, Eastern is developing an online training module for incoming students for launch fall 2019. The university also maintains a DEI website with resources and information for students and faculty to supplement the president’s commission for diversity and inclusion.
Director of Diversity and Affirmative Action Sharon Abraham is undertaking a study on the housing department and its climate to further assist understanding and solution development, with Devika Choudhri conducting the campus-wide version of the study. Also, Ellen Gold, a long time administrator, was appointed to Dean of Students to hopefully further a focus on student and campus well-being.
This, and the installation of more campus cameras to identify threatening activity with, is the start of Eastern’s attempts at curbing racial harassment. Though President Smith admitted in his all-campus update about the Best Hall incident that his commitment to “communicating widely, timely and frequently when we face problems of this nature… means that our messages may at times not properly convey our personal anguish or sufficient details about the next steps,” Larcom wanted to make several things clear on behalf of the university.
“In viewing the one single incident you note from this academic year and the racist vandalism by Eddie Curlin in 2016-17, it’s important to note the distinct national climate and wider context in which these incidents occurred,” Larcom wrote in a statement to the Eastern Echo.
“They are arising, in far greater degree, on campuses across the country. Several years ago, an event such as the white Nationalist march in Charlottesville, Va. would have been inconceivable. Racism is growing. Anti-Semitism is growing. Islamophobia is growing. Nationalism is growing. This is a regional, statewide, national and international problem. This is the most challenging environment many have seen in our lifetimes.”
“Eastern Michigan University is not immune from these challenges, but we are committed to addressing them when they appear on our campus. EMU seeks to stand as a welcoming beacon of diversity, inclusion and understanding amid such an environment, and the actions above illustrate that mission in action amid the inevitable challenges that arise at a University with more than 18,000 students.”
With this in mind, it is up to Eastern’s students as to what they want the university to do next.
“I had a meeting with other student leaders on campus, the provost, and the president, discussing things and basically giving us updates,” Fordham said. “Not only on the racial incident, but we were also talking about the Black student 10-point plan, different policy reforms, we were talking about finding ways to make Black students feel safe on campus.”
“They have been making strides, grant it, we’ve been pushing them and forcing them to but I feel as though they are finally starting to hear us.”
As for Casillas, whether he received the justice he longed for is unknown, with FERPA preventing the OWCR from releasing the conduct trial’s outcome to the student body.
“At the end of the day, when I graduate and go on to the real world, I know that I am not going to be treated as equal as my peers. That’s just life. Even if you look at the demographics at this university: only 4.7 percent of Latinos are at this university. 22 percent of African-American students are on this campus. 68.7 percent are Caucasian.,”Casillas said. [Reporter note: the percentages are closer to 5 percent, 17 percent, and 63 percent, respectively]
“It shows that the university doesn’t really try to be diverse. A lot of students after the [Best Hall] situation don’t want to come here. And it makes me sad because that’s not what I want. As much as I hate this university, as much as I despise everything what this university stands for, I want more students of color to be here,” Casillas said.
“The way I see it, the more students of color that is on this campus, the more painful it is for them to watch. It’s painful for them to watch us graduate because everyone says ‘we have to get them where it hurts. We have to do this, we have to do that.’ If you really want to get them where it hurts, you graduate. At the end of the day, the white man has to hand you your diploma.”