At Simon's Rock, mixed messages confound
GREAT BARRINGTON — Amid campuswide fear that an assailant with racist motives remains at large, a number of students have left Bard College at Simon's Rock until classes resume on Oct. 14.
Parents are worried, and deeper issues at a school with many students of color have risen to the surface.
But town police, while stepping up patrols, have said they do not believe the public is in danger after a student of color reported being attacked and knocked unconscious last Friday, and dragged into the woods. It followed multiple instances of the appearance of the N-word, written on a communal chalkboard in the student union.
The college canceled this week's classes leading up to next week's school break, and one student said that some of her peers might not return.
On Thursday, the Berkshire District Attorney's Office said it could not comment on whether there is any threat to students, particularly students of color. DA spokesman Andrew McKeever said the office could only confirm that a massive investigation underway by State Police detectives attached to the DA's office and Great Barrington Police.
McKeever said that because of the "potential racial component," detectives are conducting an investigation that includes requested surveillance footage and forensic testing.
The possibility of a hate crime also triggered a notification to the U.S. Attorney's Office, he added.
McKeever reiterated that the office has no leads on nor a description of an assailant.
That has shaken students of the early college, many of whom have headed home until there is resolution about safety. They also want to see a more thorough exploration of what they say is a climate of intolerance at a school and a predominantly white faculty amid a full-time student population of 450 of which 40 percent are people of color.
"It's pretty scary because that person could be on our campus right now for all we know," said Dorissa Tyndall, a freshman who spoke to The Eagle from her home in St. Louis.
Tyndall and other students asked why the school has not gone into lockdown, given the absence of leads on a suspect.
But one school official, noting that the school is also conducting its own investigation, said that this did not appear necessary.
"Security officials assessed the situation and the information available at the time and found no indication of an immediate threat," wrote Vice Provost Susan Lyon in an email, adding that she couldn't discuss specific incident details given the ongoing investigation by multiple agencies.
Tyndall, 16, worries that there is still reason to be afraid. She knows the victim from a seminar class they have together.
"I've seen her wounds and would not describe them as minor," she said, addressing what police and the DA's office said were minor injuries. "She has trouble walking now." The victim, 18, was taken to Berkshire Medical Center and was later released to return to campus.
This college for gifted students who are ready to bypass high school was swept into a maelstrom of fear and racial tension after the graffiti was found, and again after the reported assault. It was just after 2 p.m. Friday that campus security received a call reporting that a student had been assaulted on a wooded trail on this sprawling campus off Alford Road.
Early on, neither police, the DA's office, nor college officials provided any other details. But frustration and anger was stoked after town Police Chief William Walsh said Monday that the incident did not yet appear to be a hate crime, and when The Eagle reported his statement.
"Investigators have not discovered anything that would lead them to conclude that this was a racially motivated incident," Walsh had said.
Slurs and symbols
Less than one month after Tyndall arrived for orientation on Aug. 17, the N-word appeared in permanent marker on a communal chalkboard in the student union.
"It was written over a lot of other art," Tyndall said. "I was really shocked."
That was on Sept. 12, she said. A week later it happened again. And at some point, a swastika was also found etched in a bathroom stall at the school's Lecture Center.
All of it was reported to campus security and local and state police. Tyndall said the victim had reported at least one of those instances. Emails from school officials condemning the acts went out to students, and residential directors began holding meetings for support and discussion. On the morning of Sept. 27, a faculty member sent out yet another email to students to decry the racial slurs and graffiti, according to emails obtained by The Eagle.
It was that same afternoon that the attack was reported just after 2 p.m. At 7:55 p.m., Ken Geremia, the school's director of Campus Safety and Emergency Planning, sent an email to the entire college community, including parents, notifying them. Geremia said that local police were investigating and had increased their presence on campus. He advised students to "not walk alone and [stay] in pairs and groups." Counselors were made available 24/7, an 11 p.m. curfew was imposed, and security was bolstered.
Despite this, some students left the campus, not wanting to sleep there, according to another email sent by Geremia at 11:01 p.m.
On Saturday, the provost's office sent an email to the campus community as an update, and noted that an assailant had not been identified, but that the school was going deep into support mode to deal with what is now a massive racism crisis on campus. A distraught group of black students and students of color had pulled together their own response.
"Due to these events as well as the lack of organized response, black students are frightened ... classes being kept in session benefits only students who are not being targeted," read a statement issued on Sunday to the college's administration by the Black Student Union and supporting student groups. The statement was accompanied by the students' list of demands.
The administration agreed to all demands, including the adoption of an emergency dispatch system, cameras, as well as cultural competency training and hiring "to bring more faculty of color to this campus."
The graffiti and the reported attack rattled an already troubled situation both at this early college and its four-year parent, Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, N.Y.
"The Bard Network has put social justice issues [at] the forefront of our mission," the statement read. "This has caused a disproportionate amount of marginalized people to flock to these institutions. It, however, remains a predominantly white institution."
Tyndall said that while she is not a person of color, she noticed a disconnect.
"I did get the sense that the faculty were not all the time the most racially sensitive," she said, noting that she did not want to provide examples.
In emails to the community, school staff and administrators sharply disavowed hate speech and racially motivated violence.
"Last night, the `N' word was written three times on the chalk wall," wrote Michelle Spaulding, dean of students. "The word is, of course, a painful reminder of an ongoing legacy of hate, racism and bias in our world."
Spaulding acknowledged that the school had to "address issues of equity and inclusion right here on our own campus."
Students like Tyndall have balked at the characterization of the reported attack as an "allegation." In their official press statements, Great Barrington Police called it a "reported assault" and the DA's office called it an "alleged assault."
McKeever, the DA's spokesman, said it's because the investigation is ongoing, and "includes the nature of the original complaint as well as potential motivations behind the reported assault."Vice Provost Lyon said the school's focus is on support the student and the community, and to work with investigators to try to understand what happened.
"The investigations are still ongoing, as such we don't want to speculate about the circumstances, motives or other elements of the allegations," Lyon wrote.
Tyndall said the last she heard the victim is still on campus and appears to be doing well, "all things considered."
But anxiety is high for students who stayed or left. She said it appeared that most students who could leave did.
"My parents didn't feel safe leaving me there," said Tyndall, who is pursuing theater, and whose idea it was to attend the college. "My mother said, `Where did I just send my 16-year-old?'"
But Tyndall said that right now, she plans to return, unlike some others.
"How are they going to feel safe in two weeks? What will change?"
Heather Bellow can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.
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