Berkshire NAACP meets Simon's Rock students in wake of hate speech, reported attack

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GREAT BARRINGTON — After meeting with students at Bard College at Simon’s Rock on Wednesday night, the president of the Berkshire County Branch of the NAACP said the gathering was another critical step in the continuing dialogue about racism students are experiencing in South County.

NAACP President Dennis Powell told The Eagle on Thursday that members of the early college’s Black Student Union and 11 members of the Black Student Alliance from The Darrow School in New Lebanon, N.Y., had an important conversation with each other and NAACP members.

About 60 people attended the meeting at Blodgett Hall, he said.

“Clearly, there are voices that need to be heard,” Powell said. “The dialogue between the young people was very, very colorful and open, and a true dialogue with regard to racial problems in our county.”

Powell also said the NAACP would help the Simon’s Rock students form an NAACP youth chapter on campus.

Berkshire NAACP President Dennis Powell
Berkshire NAACP President Dennis Powell
According to Powell, the Black Student Union at Simon’s Rock had asked the NAACP to hold its November meeting on campus and had told members of the Pittsfield-based organization that an open conversation about area racism could be most fruitful with NAACP members present.

The NAACP plans to hold its meetings in different locations around the county and to publicize those in advance in The Eagle.

Wednesday night’s meeting at Simon’s Rock was held a little more than a month after an 18-year-old female student reported being attacked on one of the campus’ wooded trails, knocked unconscious and dragged into the woods. Investigators have not identified an assailant in the afternoon incident, which happened Sept. 27, after several weeks of campuswide panic over the N-word having been scrawled several times on a student union chalkboard, and the discovery of a swastika etched into a bathroom stall.

About 40 percent of students at the college are people of color.

Campus security and local police have stepped up patrols amid a continued and massive investigation by both local police and state police detectives assigned to the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office. The possibility that the alleged attack was racially motivated also triggered a notification to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

But in recent weeks, the Berkshire DA’s office, in a preliminary report, has released inconsistencies between the student’s account to investigators and the evidence, which is also undergoing extensive forensic testing. A comment by town Police Chief William Walsh last month — that evidence of racial motivation in the reported attack had not yet turned up — and that it was reported by The Eagle ignited outrage among students who believed a racist attacker was still on the loose.

The college also hired its own private investigator who is now wrapping up her findings, wrote Provost Susan Lyon, in an email to The Eagle last week.

“We will share information with the community as appropriate,” Lyon said. “We await the DA's final report as well.”

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The administration is also addressing safety concerns. The incident sparked a list of demands from the Black Student Union that administrators launch safety measures, like the installation of surveillance cameras.

Lyon said that, so far, outdoor lighting has been improved.

“We take safety on campus very seriously,” she said. “Over the past few weeks we have upgraded lights on campus, including new and brighter LED lights installed by the Kilpatrick Athletic Center parking lot.”

But one woman who cooks for students in the dining hall said that what she had heard from students at Wednesday’s meeting with the NAACP is that not enough progress had been made with regard to safety.

“From what I heard a faculty member say there, this has been a work in progress,” said Olena Murphy. “But from what I heard the students say night, I don’t see that there is progress. Bottom line: lighting. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s pitch black out here at night. Some of the paths are still pitch black.”

Murphy and others who attended said that while security is of “first and foremost” importance, there are deeper issues at Simon’s Rock.

Safety "is what brought the campus onto the front page,” Murphy said by phone Thursday. “But the writing on the walls with the N-word, and the anti-Semitic carvings in the bathroom — those have been underlying issues for a while now, students said.”

Cultural proficiency educator and community activist Shirley Edgerton said students at the meeting were wrestling with and identifying these underlying and broader problems across the county, as well as nationally.

“I think it’s a positive that they had adults in the room who could empathize and also understand their experience because we’re also people of color,” Edgerton said. “It was a good thing in terms of having the conversation because that’s how we address issues — we talk about it and make an attempt to be transparent.”

Edgerton also said that the meeting revealed the students’ strong engagement.

“I’m so impressed with our young people, with the language they are using, and their sense of responsibility and their commitment to change,” she said.

And Powell noted again that it is important to stay focused on the overt racism and subtle insensitivity that is at the heart of this entire matter.

“In South County, Central and North County — it’s all of the Berkshires,” he said. “And I thought that having the meeting there and giving the students an opportunity for their voices to be heard identifies the work that needs to be done going forward.”

Heather Bellow can be reached at hbellow@berkshireeagle.com or on Twitter @BE_hbellow and 413-329-6871.


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