Professor resigns, school to hire private investigator as Simon's Rock tensions continue

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GREAT BARRINGTON — An adjunct professor at Bard College of Simon's Rock resigned on Monday, citing the administration's handling of an alleged attack on a student of color last month.

Also on Monday, the administration announced it plans to hire an independent investigator to "review the incident."

Julia Kirst, who taught in the language department, told administrators they're not confronting racism on the campus "head on," and that this has led to a dismissive attitude in general toward the student who reported being knocked unconscious and dragged into the woods on Sept. 27 on campus.

"When racism is left out of conversations, headlines and communiques, because it is more comfortable that way, we are adding to the harm, not to the healing," Kirst stated in the letter she sent Monday to the school's senior leadership team.

Kirst, who has a doctorate in cultural anthropology, was employed at Simon's Rock for about two years. She provided a copy of her letter to The Eagle, but declined further comment.

In her letter, Kirst said she was driven to resign after learning that some parents of current students at the early college believe the attack was a hoax, and over what she called a "lack of concern when I shared this information with two members of the college senior leadership immediately."

Confusion and fear have spiked on campus since the 18-year-old woman reported the assault to campus security just after 2 p.m. Sept. 27. That incident followed reports in recent weeks that the N-word appeared scrawled on a chalkboard and a swastika was found etched into a bathroom stall. Forty percent of the students at the college are people of color.

Local police, the Berkshire District Attorney's Office and state police detectives are investigating the incident and whether it was a hate crime. The U.S. Attorney's Office also has been notified.

A week's worth of classes were canceled in the wake of the incident, and a number of students left campus and went home. The school is currently on a scheduled fall semester break.

In a letter to The Eagle on Monday, Vice Provost Susan Lyon said the administration is retaining an independent investigator to review the incident, but can't speak to specifics "out of respect for the survivor and the open investigations."

Lyon also said that officials have become aware of "misinformation circulated on social and other media about the reported assault," which included rumors that it was a stabbing and involving multiple perpetrators. If there was evidence of either, her letter stated, it would have been relayed to the community.

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"We understand why such information would cause great fear in our community," Lyon wrote.

In her letter, Lyons said Simon's Rock "will take steps to help our community heal and grow."

Soon after the attack, local police and college officials said they did not believe there was a threat to the public. But on Thursday, town police said they are keeping watch.

"We have stepped up patrols in the neighborhood and on campus and have advised the college of adding surveillance cameras and other security enhancements," said Great Barrington Police Chief William Walsh.

A firestorm erupted last week when Walsh told The Eagle that investigators had no evidence that the alleged attack was a hate crime.

The lack of any description of an assailant or any leads has stoked fear on campus. And the swirling developments have exposed underlying racial tensions and safety concerns, for which the Black Student Union and other student groups have blamed the administration.

Meanwhile, arrangements are being made for the Berkshire branch of the NAACP to hold one of its upcoming fall meetings at the school in a show of solidarity with students, Kirst said in an email.

She said she had brought her concerns that the victim was not being believed to last week's NAACP meeting in Pittsfield, and read a statement to District Attorney Andrea Harrington, who also attended the meeting.

Harrington has declined to comment on the case pending the conclusion of the police investigation. NAACP Executive Director Dennis Powell could not be reached Monday.

As investigators continue their work, details are still hard to come by. Lyon, as well as police, have encouraged anyone with information about the alleged attack to come forward.

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


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