Bias Response Group holds community discussions: Members invite people to share their questions and concerns regarding the group

Posted by Julia Leef

Members of the Bias Response Group met students and faculty members in the Intercultural Center on Nov. 3 to discuss questions regarding bias incidents and the role of the Bias Response Group in one of two discussions held this week.

The main purpose of the discussions is to give students and faculty the chance to learn more about the Bias Response Group, as well as to offer feedback and suggestions regarding future dealings with bias incidents, said Rochelle Calhoun, dean of student affairs.

"People were not very clear who the Bias Response Group is and what we do," said Calhoun in a previous interview. "So the goal of the community meetings is one, to be known, and two, to create a space for people to have the opportunity to talk to the group of us who have some institutional responsibility for the overall climate and community."

Calhoun said many of the events and discussions hosted by the Bias Response Group this year are the result of a survey conducted last April, which gave students an opportunity to express their concerns and demonstrate their knowledge of bias incidents.

Mariel Martin, director of student diversity programs, said the survey was distributed to the entire student body, and that 312 of those students responded. Thirteen percent said they had personally been targets of a bias incident, while twenty-nine percent said they had witnessed a bias incident at some point. Eighty-eight percent stated that they had a high or moderate awareness of incidents on campus.

"We were able to do some planning based on this survey to shape what we were doing this year in particular," Martin said. Some of the events that have taken place so far are the "Everyday Leadership Training" program before the start of the semester and the Dr. Frances Kendall lecture hosted on Sept. 26.

Such efforts have gained the attention of other colleges. Teshika Hatch '11, who is now the assistant director of admissions, said that Colby College has been inspired by the College, and is mirroring its own Bias Response Group after Skidmore's.

One topic that members discussed was the subject of incident reports, which the group receives from students throughout the semester. These incidents are most commonly reported on bias in regards to gender, sexual orientation and race and ethnicity.

Martin provided the numbers of incident reports over the past three years, reporting 21 incidents from 2008 to 2009, 11 from 2009-2010 and 22 from 2010-2011. This academic year, there have been only two reports since September, one of which occurred before the start of the semester.

Don Hastings, director of residential life, explained that students may submit incident reports online, and will receive an acknowledgement email and an invitation to speak at the next Bias Response Group meeting in reply. A general report later goes out to the student body.

However, several students at the meeting expressed concerns that the Bias Response Group ceased to inform of the status of their cases after this initial email, leading to an overall feeling that submitting a report would not do anything.

Another issue was brought up by Jonathan Zeidan '12, president of SGA, who said that at times the exact definition of a bias incident could be unclear, leading to uncertainty in students as to whether to submit a report or not.

"You can get in a very circular discussion about bias unless you are saying exactly what bias is," said Calhoun, adding that bias incidents are targeted at groups or individuals based on their identities that result in harm to the target. "What we often hear from folks who have felt targeted by incidents is that they're unsure. There is a hesitance to name it. I'm struck and moved by some things that we have heard that are horrific, that student are still asking us [if it's considered a bias incident]."

The Bias Response Group members emphasized the importance of their liaisons with the Office of Residential Life, as most bias incidents take place in the residential halls, and Campus Safety, who often works in conjunction with the Bias Response Group, joining its members on their annual retreat in January.

"It really became clear to us that for this community, we all need to be in communication together to be able to respond effectively," Calhoun said.

Members also emphasized the importance of dispersing information to the College community, and discussed various ways in which this could be better accomplished. Some of the suggestions students brought up include additional dialogues and discussions, awareness programs, guest speakers and open forums.

Students also expressed their desire for first-years to be informed about the Bias Response Group early on in their academic careers. Several of them cited their past involvement in leadership training and Inter-Group Relations dialogues, and encouraged more opportunities for those programs for First-Years.

"Students try to justify these incidents so as not to make a big deal out of them," said Jovany Andujar, vice president for diversity affairs on SGA. "We have to keep giving voice to and presence to these issues because they're so silencing."

Riley Neugebauer, campus sustainability coordinator, as a relatively new member to the College, suggested that information on the Bias Response Group be offered to faculty as well.

There will be a second public discussion at 11:30 a.m. on Nov. 4, in the Intercultural Center in Case Center. 

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