By Anthony Vassallo
After last week’s protests successfully halted Nahiem Paris’ suspension for having a friend's taser in hand on campus, Purchase administrators scheduled a meeting to discuss campus safety and conduct on Tuesday afternoon.
But what was supposed to be an in-person conversation in the Humanities theater was reduced to a Zoom lecture, where members of the administration spoke without interruption for the entirety of the webinar.
Administrators in attendance included President Milly Peña, UPD Chief Dayton Tucker, Vice President of Student Affairs Dennis Craig, Chief Diversity and Affirmative Action Officer, Jerima DeWese, Provost Barry Pearson, Dean of Student Affairs Patty Bice, the Director of Community Standards Tatiana Perez, and student PSGA President Nick Astor.
The chat function was initially disabled, and so were their video and microphone functions. The number of participants was hidden, but attendees were eventually told that there were 356 halfway through the webinar after numerous comments appeared in the chat asking for this information.
Participants were able to ask questions in the Q/A section of the Zoom, where they expressed their feelings throughout. From the very beginning, it was clear that there was outrage about silencing students through Zoom, and the lack of an in-person meeting.
Senior Kevonna Buchanan typed in the Q/A section: “So, did you guys decide to have this little zoom meeting so everything could be on your own terms?”
Kaelin Martin wrote: “Why are you censoring the students by removing the chat and microphone function at a community conversation?”
“How can you listen if you don’t let us talk?” typed Simona Gaspar.
Craig sent an email to Purchase students Monday afternoon explaining that the meeting change was due to an increase in interest, which raised COVID concerns because of the physical space limitations in the Humanities theater.
Many students suggested in the Q/A section that the meeting could have been held outside, specifically on the Great Lawn.
President Peña also sent an email out Monday afternoon, claiming that students had made racist and sexist remarks to her and other colleagues at the protest last Thursday.
“Several other students accosted staff members and hurled racist and sexist slurs at me and other colleagues,” Peña wrote. “This disturbing behavior is not acceptable in any way, and it will not be tolerated. These actions only deepen the very divides we must overcome in the service of justice, equity, and dignity.
A Purchase Phoenix reporter has been transcribing the conversation between Peña and the protestors on Thursday but has yet to find examples of this hateful speech.
Students were met with disappointment very early on in the meeting when Bice explained to them that administrators could not discuss any disciplinary cases due to the protection that FERPA (Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) provides students. This prevented any specific discussion about Nahiem Paris’s case.
E. Marill responded in the chat typing, “Isn’t this meeting specifically about Nahiem? How can you hide behind legal technicalities here? We don’t need specific records, we need accountability.”
The discussion in the Q/A section was also hindered by Zoom trolls, making racial slurs and negative comments about the situation. This distraction took the focus away from improving the situation, which was another reason students were fuming over the lack of an in-person meeting.
PSGA President Nick Astor suggested that students build a team of advocates that understand the code of conduct in order to support other students. This was received well in the Q/A section.
Provost Pearson acknowledged that the students' desire to speak in person will be met and said, “In the future when we do meet in person, the topics that the students want to talk about are front and center, pulled from the chat.”
Pearson claimed that there is context that must be investigated before they make a major decision. This provoked a number of student responses including one from Chloe Burgos, who wrote, “WHAT CONTEXT DO U NEED TO SEE ??” Many students taunted the campus “Think Wide Open” motto.
Assistant professor of sociology Toivo Asheeke, who teaches courses on global black radical history and race and racism, wrote, “Safety also is acknowledging the space we are on and in (Thomas Plantation).” This correlates to another petition that has been circulating through the school to get the residential hall Big Haus’ name changed.
Ironically, students weren’t heard until after the webinar, which ended 30 minutes earlier than expected. Several students caught President Peña on her way to a meeting on the third floor of the Student Services building. Political science professor Sam Galloway mediated the situation in an effort to keep the environment civil.
Afterward, in an interview with this reporter, Galloway said that if students want there to be change, they must do it in a cohesive and respectful manner. He plans on continuing to support students as they rally in support of Nahiem and their Black peers.
Deputy Chief Tucker was also at the scene along with UPD Officer Gonzalez, Officer Wilson, and another officer who stood by the door. Students complained about the original officer standing in the doorway of the room who was eventually removed and replaced.
Students spoke powerfully about the issues on campus, saying that the webinar did nothing but silence their voices, and invoke more frustration and anger.
“I want you guys to eat your lunch and be ready to stand outside and answer the hard questions because at the end of the day, doing it this way is silencing,” said one student.
Tucker explained the process of filing a complaint on numerous occasions but was unable to answer questions directly related to Nahiem Paris’ case
Sophomore Daniel Karpf said to Tucker, “You don’t gotta take our complaint, you have to address your entire precinct about the behavior and what they do to students.”
Simona Gaspar said, “Look at your coworkers, look at your employees who you know are doing these things, and the worst you're doing is a slap on the wrist, if that,” Gaspar suggested suspending officers without pay, to give them more of an incentive to take their job seriously, in reference to complaints about alleged misconduct.
Asheeke, who teaches freshmen, suggested the school create a public forum for Black, Indigenous and Latinx students in order to speak to the new generation to form a unity between the different classes.
“The Latinx and Black community has to be strong, because if we’re not strong, they are just gonna break it apart and sell people out, and it’s gonna be done,” said Ashekee. “It’s important that you know there are multiple issues that are hitting Black, Latinx, Indigenous and white working-class students; we need a chance to speak about that.”
Asheeke also mentioned that there are only seven black faculty currently on a tenured track at the college.
**More than 24 hours after the webinar, President Peña released an email in which she characterized the forum as "an unsatisfactory experience for all involved."
She wrote, "While yesterday’s community forum attempted to engage in the dialogue necessary to facilitate the very change we all recognize is necessary, it did not have the outcome we desired." Future plans are for the administration to hold a series of open, in-person town halls "that will start by listening to student voices."
On Friday, another protest is planned for 4:30 p.m. outside the Student Services building.