Students fight 3-year suspension from University of Puget Sound over polemic flier

The University of Puget Sound campus in Tacoma is shown in February 2013.
The University of Puget Sound campus in Tacoma is shown in February 2013. Staff photo, 2013

Three students of color are appealing the University of Puget Sound’s decision to suspend them for allegedly posting a controversial flier on campus.

The anonymous flier labeled 22 students and staff members as “bigots of Puget Sound,” and was posted Nov. 11 in multiple spots on campus, the university said. The flier listed the 22 individuals’ names along with short descriptions such as “racist,” “sexist,” “misogynist” and in one case, “rapist.”

In an email to the campus community in November, UPS President Isiaah Crawford called the flier “deeply disturbing and offensive.”

“While the university supports and defends freedom of expression, it has clear policies prohibiting harassment of any kind,” the university later said in a statement Dec. 9.

The students, acting on legal advice, said they will neither confirm nor deny that they were responsible for the flier.

But they say the punishment they received — a three-year suspension — is disproportionate to the alleged offense, and illustrates the differences between how the private university treats white students and students of color.

“The university wants to take an educational approach with its white students, because they don’t want to disrupt their education,” said Akilah Blakey, 22, a black student who was among the three suspended. “But with kids of color, they don’t give the time of day.”

The university wants to take an educational approach with its white students, because they don’t want to disrupt their education. But with kids of color, they don’t give the time of day.

Akilah Blakey, 22, one of the three students suspended from UPS over the flier incident

In addition to Blakey, the university issued suspensions to 22-year old Lydia Gebrehiwot and 20-year-old Andres Chavez.

The students have until Monday to submit their appeal of the suspensions.

UPS spokeswoman Gayle McIntosh said she was limited in how much she could say about the ongoing case, but called the situation “complex and complicated.”

When possible, the university prefers disciplinary sanctions that allow students to finish their education, she said.

“We’re not about suspending or expelling students,” McIntosh said. “... This is not something the university engages in lightly.”

She said she couldn’t discuss the university’s investigation of the students in detail, but noted “a preponderance of the evidence” is required to issue sanctions against students. The evidence against the three students can be reviewed upon appeal, she said.

Harassment is one violation the students were found responsible for, according to copies of their disciplinary letters reviewed by The News Tribune.

We’re not about suspending or expelling students... This is not something the university engages in lightly.

Gayle McIntosh, spokeswoman for the University of Puget Sound

The students also were found responsible for disrespectful behavior and violating the policies of the university’s Wheelock Student Center, according to the disciplinary letters.

In those letters, Deborah Chee, the university’s associated dean of students, wrote that the length of the students’ suspensions was due partly to “the cumulative negative impact” of their actions, which directly affected 22 people.

“The suspension timeline allows the campus community to heal,” Chee’s letters to the students said.

Since being notified of their suspensions Dec. 20, the three students have taken their case to social media, dubbing themselves the “UPS3.”

The suspension has left Chavez, a junior living in university housing, in need of a new place to live, he said.

“I’m technically homeless right now,” said Chavez, the son of Mexican immigrants.

For Gebrehiwot and Blakey — both graduating seniors who have finished their required credits — it means they can’t receive their degrees for another three years, they said. In their cases, the suspension translates to a three-year hold on their degrees and transcripts.

“It’s been a pretty difficult situation, that all the work I’ve put in for the past four-and-a-half years is for nothing,” said Gebrehiwot, whose parents immigrated to the United States from the East African nation of Eritrea.

About 1,200 people have signed an online petition on asking the university to dismiss the charges against the students.

Some faculty members share the students’ concerns about the sanctions, and are helping them with the appeal process, said Dexter Gordon, a professor who directs the university’s African American Studies Program.

Gordon said that although he doesn’t condone the posting of the flier, he thinks the punishment was too severe.

“This outcome strikes me as beyond what we ought to be meting out as sanctions to students,” said Gordon, who described the results of the disciplinary process as “really, really troubling.”

“This act in question I believe does not warrant this outcome that I see.”

This outcome strikes me as beyond what we ought to be meting out as sanctions to students.

Dexter Gordon, UPS professor who directs the university’s African American studies program

Others, though, think the university needs to send a strong message that anonymous harassment isn’t acceptable at UPS.

Patrick O’Neil, a professor of politics and government at the university, said that if the situation were reversed and someone posted a flier with racial slurs against minority students, “people would be calling for their heads.”

He said he thinks the three-year suspension is appropriate, given the circumstances of the case.

“The question is whether or not we are saying this is an appropriate type of behavior, and whether students and staff should be subject to anonymous harassment,” O’Neil said.

The three suspended students say university officials haven’t produced enough evidence to prove they committed the offense, or explained how the flier would be harassment under university policy.

They also contend the disciplinary process was mishandled, and that the outcome of their hearing was swayed by a letter faculty members wrote criticizing the posting of the flier.

The letter, signed by 108 faculty members, was emailed to members of the campus community the day before the students’ disciplinary hearing in December.

The students further allege the university has taken recent reports of discrimination against minorities and women on campus much less seriously than the posting of the anonymous flier.

The question is whether or not we are saying this is an appropriate type of behavior, and whether students and staff should be subject to anonymous harassment.

Patrick O’Neil, professor of politics and government at UPS

As evidence, they refer to a report of discriminatory harassment incidents the university compiled. The report gives brief descriptions of 105 instances of discriminatory harassment reported at the university between July 2015 and June 2016. The incidents range from reports of homophobic and racist remarks to sexist graffiti and sexual assaults.

Of the 105 incidents, eight were listed as resulting in student conduct investigations, each related to allegations of sexual assault, domestic abuse or sexual misconduct. Four of those cases resulted in suspensions, while one student was expelled for intimate partner violence, according to the report.

Other reports of harassment based on race, sex or gender identity didn’t appear to result in suspensions or student conduct investigations. Many of the incidents involved unknown perpetrators, second-hand reports or victims who didn’t want to pursue the case.

One incident in which an identified student wrote “offensive sexist remarks” on other students’ residence hall doors was “addressed by Residence Life,” with no mention of a student conduct investigation. The circumstances of the case weren’t provided in detail.

Similarly, fraternity members who allegedly engaged in anti-Semitic actions toward a Jewish member were “addressed by the Chief Diversity Officer,” without an investigation or suspensions.

The list doesn’t include all types of harassment reported on campus, such as instances of bullying, said McIntosh, the UPS spokeswoman.

Some of the incidents listed in the report are no more than hearsay, she said.

“Not all of those reports are actionable — not all of them can even be verified,” McIntosh said.

Racial issues have come up on the UPS campus before.

Last year, the vice principal of a California charter school filed a complaint saying a group of his high school students visiting the campus encountered subtle and “overt” acts of racism, including hearing comments such as, “get this trash out of here.”

The students, who were mostly Latino, also were racially profiled at the campus bookstore, the vice principal said, and told not to touch the merchandise because “their hands were greasy.”

In late 2015, students who felt unrepresented on campus staged a walkout to demand the university improve its diversity efforts, including by recruiting more students from low-income and marginalized backgrounds and hiring more professors of color. Chavez, Blakey and Gebrehiwot were among the student activists involved in that effort, they said.

The UPS campus consists of about 2,500 undergraduate students, about 25 percent of whom are minorities.

Gordon, the head of the university’s African American Studies program, said he’s not positive that race was the reason that the students received such harsh sanctions.

“But I would have to say, looking at three students of color facing this sanction, one has to at least raise the question,” he said.

Melissa Santos: 360-357-0209, @melissasantos1

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