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Colorado State campus struggles with increase in reports of racial bias incidents

A three-fold increase in bias incidents has prompted a louder conversation between Colorado State students and administrators

People watch and listen to the Associated Students of Colorado State University senate session Sept. 18, 2019, from the overflow room during a discussion of the blackface image that has been circulating on social media recently. The senate session was moved to the North Ballroom of the Lory Student Center to a accommodate for an unusually large crowd size. (Forrest Czarnecki, The Collegian)
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Fort Collins — A noose, crudely fashioned from crepe paper, dangled in the fluorescent lights outside of a black student’s dorm hall at Colorado State University.

A year later, in the spring of 2018, a parent reported to police that she was nervous that two Native American students had joined a tour on the Fort Collins campus, causing authorities to question the prospective students in an incident that made national headlines. And last fall, a swastika was spray-painted on the brick wall of a campus apartment building. 

The swastika appeared the same month that a photo of students in blackface circulated through social media, stirring the student body and setting off a cry for the administration to do more to combat racially charged incidents. 

CSU has experienced a three-fold increase in reports of bias, according to a review of 2018 and 2019 reports by the student-run newspaper, The Collegian. The trend, which mirrors that of campuses across the country, has sparked a louder conversation at CSU among students and administrators.

In the past four years, CSU has seen several high-profile, racially motivated incidents that made headlines on campus, in the state and nationally, and led some students to speak out about no longer feeling welcome or safe. In 2018, the university began tracking such complaints in a new way, separate from incidents that were classified as hate crimes.

A gallery member holds up his fist and records the speaker on his phone at the Associated Students of Colorado State University senate session Sept. 18, 2019, during a discussion of the blackface image that has been circulating on social media recently. The senate session was moved to the North Ballroom of the Lory Student Center to a accommodate for an unusually large crowd size. (Forrest Czarnecki, The Collegian)

In 2017 and 2018, only two hate crimes were reported — and there were none reported in 2016, according to CSU’s 2019 Clery Report, a required report detailing statistics on campus crime for the preceding three calendar years.

In the fall of 2018, the university put in place a new bias reporting model, which tracked not just hate crimes, but incidents of bias. There were 25 bias incidents reported that fall, eight of which were related to race. During the same period of 2019, there were 96 incidents.

In all of 2019, CSU received 153 incidents that were determined to be bias-related, with 56 being related to race, ethnicity or color.

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A national report by the Leadership, Equity, Access and Diversity Fund found that 67% of people participating in their study saw racially biased incidents happen at their university within the past two years. A reported 43% of the respondents said bias incidents have happened more than once.

At the University of Colorado Boulder, a woman was recorded calling black students the n-word in a study room. The University of Nevada Reno has seen a number of swastikas drawn across campus. Widespread racist and hateful comments have been posted around Syracuse University. 

This story was produced by student journalists at The Rocky Mountain Collegian, Colorado State University’s student newspaper, with editorial assistance from The Colorado Sun.

CSU is clearly not alone in experiencing an uptick of reported incidents, but student and campus leaders say the university is talking about racial relations more than it has in years. Some students are calling on the university to run an orientation session on racial bias, similar to the way CSU holds a mandatory information session for new students about alcohol. 

Bridgette Johnson, the director of CSU’s Black/African American Cultural Center, said that during the nine years she has been here, she has seen a disturbing increase in the number of incidents reported on campus, especially recently.  

“While there has always been some type of complaint coming from students about the climate here at CSU as it pertains to race, over the last four to five years I hear (it) more often,” Johnson said. 

She said much of the behavior continues to be passive, but there is still a good deal more of outright and intense behavior that deeply affects students. 

“That is something that is disturbing, of course, that the racial component has not improved by any measure,” Johnson said. “It has gotten worse, especially in the last couple of years.” 

Colorado State University students march at the #NotProudToBe blackout event towards The Oval during the Fall Address, Sept. 19, 2019. (Anna von Pechmann, The Collegian)

Julius Philpot, a recent alumnus, needed only one word to describe racially charged incidents: consistent.

“As far as the consistency of the incidences actually occurring, they are still happening,” Philpot said. “And I think it will continue to happen because everyone has the mindset of ‘Oh, I’m not wrong’ or ‘Oh, it’s not me’ or ‘I have somebody who is of color saying that it is OK or doesn’t say anything at all.’”

“When I transferred I was pretty shocked,” said Jessica Mitchell, a senior hospitality management student at CSU. “When I was talking to everyone up here, I was like, ‘Oh, that stuff happens at CSU?’ I had never experienced anything like it.” 

Fifth-year health and exercise science major Ahonsi Ohimai is among those calling for an orientation on racial bias. For students who are continuously part of bias-motivated incidents, Ohimai suggested they attend what he referred to as a “race and bias course.”

“I feel like each semester, at least once a semester, it is always something,” Ohimai said. “That has always been the trend (in) my time here.” 

Only a fraction of incidents of bias meet the legal definition of a hate crime. 

“Some incidents of bias that occur at CSU may be a hate crime if they meet the legal definition,” wrote Scott Harris, chief of the CSU Police Department, in an email to The Collegian. “However, many of the reported incidents of bias are not hate crimes; those incidents of bias are addressed by a group of University staff through a response that is separate from the criminal investigation of a hate crime that would be conducted by CSUPD.”

For something to be labeled as a hate crime, Harris explained, it must reach the threshold of being a crime. From there it must be determined if the perpetrator was “motivated by bias against a specific victim or victims,” with those victims targeted for their race, gender, sexual orientation and more. 

A good example of this is graffiti or vandalism: a crime that can be seen as a hate crime but will be seen as just a normal crime if there is no specific individual or group targeted. 

According to campus police, the bloody N-word incident could not be classified as a hate crime because it did not appear to target any individual or group of individuals associated specifically with the location where it was found since it was a public space. 

After the photo of students in blackface became the talk of the CSU campus in the 2019 fall semester, President Joyce McConnell and her administration reacted fast to discuss what would happen. This came first in the form of an email and later spread across social media and discussions across the university.

Colorado State University President Joyce McConnell announced the Race, Bias and Equity Initiative in the fall of 2019 following a string of bias incidents on campus. (Forrest Czarnecki, The Collegian)

In her email on Sept. 10, 2019, McConnell explained that personal social media accounts are not under the jurisdiction of the university.

“This recent post runs counter to our principles of community, but it does not violate any CSU rule or regulation, and the First Amendment prohibits the University from taking any punitive action against those in the photo,” McConnell wrote. 

Her response prompted frustration and distrust from the campus community, particularly from students who were affected and offended by the photo. 

“I think that the very first email that we received from President McConnell was a huge slap in the face to a lot of students who were feeling bothered by the blackface situation,” Mitchell said. “I understand that it was the first situation that she had to deal with as president, but I think that the way everything was addressed was like, ‘We hear you, but we are also not going to do anything about it.’”

More than a week after the blackface photo surfaced, hundreds of students, faculty, staff and community members packed the North Ballroom and an overflow room in the Lory Student Center to express their frustrations with the university and McConnell during an Associated Students of CSU session.  

As the room buzzed with emotion, the night saw tears, screams, threats of fistfights and emotion on a scale rarely seen at CSU: the culmination of all the frustration with a campus overwhelmed with bias-related incidents. 

Later, during McConnell’s Fall address, students staged a #NotProudToBe protest. They marched in solidarity, moving between sun and shadows of The Oval’s tall trees, to show their frustration, something that McConnell herself described as the “best representation on any college campus in the United States of the exercise of First Amendment rights.”

A student who wished not to be named listens to speakers at the Associated Students of Colorado State University senate session Sept. 18, 2019, during a discussion of the blackface image that has been circulating on social media recently. The senate session was moved to the North Ballroom of the Lory Student Center to accommodate for the unexpectedly large crow. (Forrest Czarnecki, The Collegian)

“It is amazing for me; I think the response has been incredible,” said Blanche Hughes, vice president for Student Affairs. “As someone who has been here for 35 years and has always been, in some ways, involved in these efforts in whatever jobs I had here, I have never seen the response that we have gotten. That is what gives me hope.”

Johnson said the response during these incidents has shown the system of support that is around the students at CSU.

“I think it is a great reminder to students that they are not alone,” Johnson said. “That they have each other, that they have peers at other institutions, they have faculty and staff and administration here to support them, and they also have other folks in the community that are there to support them.”

McConnell, in a recent interview with The Collegian, explained that part of the problem is that while the university’s principles of community address incidents of bias and why they should be avoided, the student code of conduct does not specifically outline punishment for students who incite these incidents, something she wants to change.

“We can choose to transform Colorado State University and to do so with the urgency that we know is warranted,” McConnell wrote in a preliminary email to The Collegian.

“I want us to create a campus climate that allows our students, faculty and staff to truly thrive,” McConnell wrote. “Every single member of our community deserves to know that they are welcomed and valued for every aspect of their identity, race, gender, religion, ethnicity, immigrant status, socio-economic status, disability, age or veteran status. They deserve a place where there’s no question — theirs or anyone else’s — whether they belong. Because they do.”

Philpot said a good step forward is to cement expectations in the incoming students, the ones touring and going through the first steps of their college career. 

“We have to find somewhere to cut it off and just say ‘All right, we gotta start fresh’ and help enforce the standards or the rules and what the expectations should have been (in) meeting those expectations, those things we are told are going to happen,” Philpot said. “Not painting something different. I am hoping the picture that is painted for them is the picture they see when they get here.”