Derrick Clifton knows what it’s like to feel “different.”
He says he comes from a multicultural background “with regard to race, class, sexual orientation and religion.” A junior in the School of Communication, he’s committed to honoring his identity; he attends interfaith events on campus and works in the LGBT Resource Center.
Clifton, an African-American man, was working out with a friend at SPAC in November, when he noticed an older white male staring at him with contempt. The man approached him, spat at him, and walked away. Clifton missed dinner waiting for the police; he’s pressing charges for assault.
Faculty members are working together to create a resource to help students who have gone through similar experiences.
“Regardless of whether or not it was hate-related…whatever it is, that may happen to somebody else, or it may be a worse incident,” he says.
Doris Dirks, coordinator of the LGBT Resource Center, and other members of Northwestern’s faculty have been working for the past year to implement a bias incident reporting team (BIRT) on campus to make it easier for students to deal with bias-related incidents.
The goal, she says, is to create a more systematic way for students to report and follow through on bias incidents. The team would serve as a resource for students to find all the support needed to deal with a bias incident or hate crime.
“There should really just be a centralized place where, if you are a target of a bias incident or a hate crime, this is where you go,” Dirks says. “As a community, to have a bias incident response team sends a signal…that it’s a serious thing that the institution values.”
As the system stands now, students who have experienced bias incidents contact University Police and, if they so choose, an organization like the LGBT Resource Center, the Women’s Center or Multicultural Student Affairs, which may provide resources for the group they identify with.
Dirks says students can easily be overwhelmed by the number of decisions they have to make in a short amount of time — whom to contact, how to follow through, where to find support and acceptance. A bias incident response team would eliminate the confusion, incorporating links to University Police, representatives from various campus organizations and qualified individuals to assist with victim support and follow-up.
Ideally, she says, a victim could report a bias incident via a hotline or a web site. Within 24 hours, the team would contact the victim and discuss options. Tracking down the perpetrator, seeking legal justice or other follow-up procedures would be completely at the victim’s discretion, Dirks says, as everyone will want to deal with an incident differently.
“Having a clear procedure in place would speak to creating a campus climate where people feel valued and safe,” she says. “Then you know that something’s going to be responded to quickly, addressed quickly and resolved quickly.”
Dirks has researched reporting system mechanisms at other colleges, such as Indiana University, for general guidelines and ideas. Indiana launched its first team in 1988 in response to student protests after an African-American student was physically and verbally assaulted while jogging on campus. The school now has four separate teams – one each for incidents relating to gender, race, religion and sexual orientation.
Pamela Freeman served on a committee that founded Indiana’s first reporting team, known as the TRUST program. As the Associate Dean of Students and Director of the Office of Student Ethics and Anti-Harassment Programs, she still works closely with the TRUST program. She says she agrees that the victim should play an important role in working through a bias incident.
“We let the victim take the lead,” she says. “Especially if [the perpetrator is] in their peer group, they may not want a whole lot to be done.”
She says the TRUST program is careful not to appear too judicial or punitive. They try not to use the term “hate crime” when incidents clearly aren’t criminal, and when they are, the victim is still in charge of determining what steps should be taken.
“Most of the incidents we get involve something verbal,” she says. “They could easily be described as freedom of expression — it doesn’t quite rise to the level of a hate crime, but it’s still very disturbing.”
Campus Pride, a nonprofit organization working to make colleges safer for LGBT students, hosted a webinar on November 17 about the benefits and technicalities of creating a BIRT. About ten Northwestern students, faculty and administrators, mostly those who have already been working to create the BIRT, sat in to listen.
The webinar moderators, Greg Miraglia and Shane Windmeyer, spoke about the successes of reporting teams at other institutions. Both shared words of wisdom from their experiences working on projects related to campus diversity; Windmeyer is the founder and coordinator of CampusPride.net, and Miraglia is a dean at Napa Valley College with experience in law enforcement.
“A team sends a message against hate,” Windmeyer says. “Having a visible presence of a team on campus can go a long way in prevention itself.”
Dirks says she thinks representation at the webinar was good; it shows people from different circles of campus are interested in helping. Though the details aren’t entirely worked out, she’s hoping there’s enough momentum for the team to be up and running as early as this month.
The next step is working with administration, particularly the president and the dean of students, to launch the program. Much of the preliminary work is done, Dirks says. Though there are imperfections to iron out, the team is ready to move forward — with some help.
Freeman says administrative cooperation has been crucial in keeping the TRUST program going at Indiana, particularly because of the program’s limited power as a judicial force.
“We derive more power through influence because we’re free to recommend anything and we have established a sense of respect and trust on the part of the administration,” she says. “They often rely on us.”
As for Northwestern, Clifton says he thinks creating a BIRT should be a priority. At the very least, he says, students from all backgrounds need to feel safe on campus.
“It’s very important that students are aware that they have administrative support via policy and moral support,” he says. “[A BIRT would] help us create a culture where multiple identities and multiple cultures feel that they have a safe space everywhere on Northwestern’s campus, and not just in select circles.”
The precise shape and structure of Northwestern’s bias incident reporting team are still in the works, incorporating considerations for students’ privacy, security and general peace of mind. How it will affect campus culture is still up in the air.