Sharing concern for ‘one of our own’

Students wanted their concerns to be heard after what they called a “violation of Allegheny’s community” occurred last week with the arrest of “one of our own.”

A campus-wide email was sent by Dean for Institutional Diversity Kristin Dukes and Dean of Students April Thompson at 4:47 p.m. Friday, April 12, informing community members of a forum scheduled for 5 p.m. that same evening to discuss the incident and how best to move forward as a community.

“We are writing today to address concerns that have been raised around an Allegheny College student being removed from campus yesterday for questioning related to an incident that occurred off campus this past weekend,” the email read. “We are saddened to hear that members of our community, especially our community members of color, are frightened and feel unsafe. We also recognize that an apology may not mean much at this moment, but we do sincerely apologize for the hurt, disappointment and anger community members are experiencing.”

Despite the 13-minute notice, over 20 individuals — students, faculty and administrators — were in attendance.

Before opening the forum to comments that Dukes “might” be able to answer, Dukes said she and other college administrators could be as in the dark as the student body.

After the alleged assault, the Meadville Police Department launched an investigation. Through its investigation, the department identified “potential folks of interest,” Dukes said, saying the department then secured a warrant for the arrest of the Allegheny student.

Although the department obtained an arrest warrant, Dukes said the college was not made aware of the situation’s “actuality” until 1:25 p.m. on Thursday, April 11, five minutes before the student was removed from class.

Chase Lintner, ’19, asked Dukes and Thompson when the student was removed from class.

“I don’t want to get into too many details about somebody else’s situation,” Thompson said.

Dukes interjected and said the college gave the “lead time” it was able to and said there was a conversation “earlier in the day” about how to reach out to the student.

“Yesterday, to avoid — and I want this very clear — to avoid the possibility of Meadville Police Department physically going into a classroom and removing the student, our interim director of public safety (William Merchbaker) went to that classroom in an attempt to get that student out and to public safety so that Meadville Police Department would be able to talk to the student,” Dukes said. “What actually, what they were doing was following up on their arrest warrant.”

If Merchbaker had not gone to the classroom, Dukes said the Meadville Police Department would have physically removed the student, something Dukes said she and Thompson “would never be OK with.”

“I want to make it very clear that we did not willingly hand over a student or allow Meadville Police Department to come into a classroom,” Dukes said.

When law enforcement obtains a warrant, the campus is limited in its ability to intervene and publicize information to the student body, Dukes said.

“There are things that we and the college as a whole do not have answers to right now,” Dukes said. “We just don’t.”

Because the alleged assault occurred off campus, it falls under the jurisdiction of the Meadville Police Department. Thompson said Allegheny is doing its best to see the student is supported.

When a warrant is issued for a student’s arrest, Thompson said the college does its best to honor the individual’s privacy, “not always successfully,” and be discrete in its handling of the matter. Thompson said the school tries to offer support and contact the student’s parents to facilitate legal representation and be mindful of what the student and their family wants.

During Friday’s forum, Dukes said she wanted to talk about how to move forward as a community.

Brian Hill, ’19, asked the conversation be about what actions students want to see as opposed to what actions college administrators want to see.

“I think it should be about what we want, as the campus community, and for our student body,” Hill said. “One of our own was affected by this issue, so I think it should be geared toward what we want to see come from this.”

Students asked a series of questions about the student who was taken out of class and the procedures leading up to and following his removal. Dukes and Thompson explained they were trying to figure out “the facts of what happened” when public safety arrived to the classroom to see that the situation was handled accordingly.

Dwaine Barber, ’20, asked if professors or other eyewitnesses have reached out to Dukes or Thompson with concerns about how the situation was handled.

Dukes said the professor who was teaching during the student’s removal did reach out with concerns about how the situation was handled, specifically questions about discretion and the student’s privacy.

Associate Director of the Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, Access and Social Justice Center Angelica Perez-Johnston suggested the conversation was “derailing into the specifics of a situation that should not be addressed.”

Perez-Johnston said she thought talking about the specific situation was not a productive way to utilize time during the forum, especially to be talking about a student who was not present to share their side of the story.

Hill expressed disagreement toward her suggestion, asking Perez-Johnston if students can talk about “what’s on our hearts.”

“We’re concerned about that student because we know him,” Hill said. “He’s a personal friend of ours, and we’re disgusted with the way that stuff was handled.”

After a series of interruptions, Dukes told attendees they could express their opinions; however, she said nobody was to talk over another person.

The short notice informing community members about the meeting was the source of several frustrations voiced during the forum.

“Why a lot of us are here today is not (because of) what actually happened off campus,” Sophia Stabley, ’19, said. “It’s what happened on campus, in class, yesterday, which is not how it should be handled, first of all. Second of all, this is not how a community should be handled when an email goes out 15 minutes beforehand when we’ve had knowledge of this since yesterday.”

During her comments, Stabley said a campus-wide email should have been issued immediately when the student was escorted out of class, describing the student’s public removal from class as being “a violation of Allegheny’s community.”

To respond, Dukes said it would not have been productive to send out a campus-wide notification immediately — without having additional factual information.

“We were still figuring out exactly what happened as well,” Dukes said. “In deciding and determining what was in the best interest of the student directly impacted, other people directly impacted and how we could best be productive.”

After Dukes’s explanation, Silas Garrison, ’20, asked Dukes if she knew “everything that happened now.”

“No,”  Dukes replied.

Dukes said she hoped the forum would result in action and concrete steps to help offer support to students and to help prevent these types of situations from happening, saying that she, too, is also impacted by these incidents. Dukes stressed that there was “behind the scenes” work that led to the campus-wide email and Friday’s meeting.

Some of the work Dukes described before Friday’s forum consisted of meetings with students and athletic department staff members.

“We don’t want to cause more harm with a statement than good or having a constructive conversation come out of it,” Dukes said. “What we did recognize is that continued silence doesn’t help the situation in any way, shape or form. We do know that.”

Reminding others that the student who was arrested is, first and foremost, a human being, students said they want to make sure the individual feels supported by Allegheny College.

Students asked that administrators stop being vague in their notifications of incidents, saying that words are important and the way emails are currently structured come off as “impersonal.”

Cornell LeSane, vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions, shared his opinion with attendees, saying that the college was limited in its ability to act in the situation. He said Allegheny had the student’s best interests at heart but added the situation did not play out as the college had hoped.

“Clearly, you look at this, and you recognize there are things we can do differently,” LeSane said. “But, there really is a process at times. I share my concerns in a different way than you all share and voice yours … I think in this situation, I think we all feel for the young man who was taken out of a class, and I think we can acknowledge that there are things that can and should be done differently, but we … can’t go off of what one person is saying or two people.”

An Allegheny employee and father of children who attend Allegheny, LeSane said the college should be thinking about students who do not have parents employed by the school, and how incidents like this impact students.

LeSane said if it were his son, he would not have wanted him to go anywhere and would instead want him to have a conversation before leaving the classroom.

“I can only imagine what he felt like,” LeSane said. “I can certainly only imagine what his parents felt like because I can put myself in their shoes.Wow. Why did this happen this way? While I can’t necessarily relate as a student, I can relate as a parent.”

Stressing the level of care Allegheny employees have for students, Dukes said she could have waited to address the incident after the weekend, but instead thought it was important the forum happen sooner rather than later.

Dukes said some people told her to wait until next week to act and talk, adding that others told her that scheduling a forum for Friday would look “last minute.”

“In my core, I felt that it was important that we say something now and have a space now,” Dukes said. “And we’ll continue to have those spaces, so just know that I am passionate about this. It matters to me.”