St. Joe's students challenge administration response to racist behavior

Cherri Gregg
December 05, 2018 - 8:52 am
St. Josephs University students pack a room to talk about race and bias.

Cherri Gregg/KYW Newsradio

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PHILADELPHIA (KYW Newsradio) — Students at St. Joseph's University held a forum on race this week after news broke that a racial slur was left on the dorm room door of two African-American students. The students say the university botched the situation.

Asked if she feels safe, Saint Joseph's University freshman Camille Lodugnon said, "Honestly, no."

Lodugon and roomate Alyvia Benson were among the more than 200 students who gathered in Campion Student Center on campus Monday night at a forum on race and bias.

"People are tired of the way [St Joseph's leadership> handle these types of situations," says Lodugnon.

The standing room only event took place more than two months after a white male student left a racial slur on the dorm room door of Lodugnon and Benson, who are African-American. The students had a felt letter board on their door that said "Welcome to Camille and Alyvia's Room." One day, when they returned to the room, the letters  were scrambled, and the only word they could make out was "coons," a historically deragatory term for African-Americans. 

"I just kind of brushed it off, because I didn't know what that word met. And then, that Sunday, I reported it," Benson said.

An image of Alyvia Benson and Camille Lodugon's letter board as it appeared in the student newspaper.
Cherri Gregg/KYW Newsradio

That was Sept. 30. The student says St. Joseph's administrators identified the perpatrator and labeled the incident an act of "bias." They then told the student who committed the act to apologize.

"He was just like, 'I am so sorry. I didn't mean it in the way that it happened,'" said Alyvia, who noted the student claimed he didn't know what the word meant. "If you don't know what something means- don't use it."

"When I found out it was a verbal apology, I demanded a meeting with administrators," Alyvia's mother, Alysia Benson, said. After meeting with the administrators, Benson says the male student was banned from the wing of the building where Alyvia and Camille live, but they took no other action. Then last week, the student-run newspaper The Hawk broke the story.

"I just feel as though they covered it up and tried to keep it on the hush as long as they could," Alysia said. "I am an hour and a half away, and I worry about my daughter."

So this week, students packed into a room to talk about race and bias. Several Black students stood up, telling the group they experienced racist acts while on campus. Students of all background stood up and expresed outrage.

"Of course this was a cover-up. And it was responded to by lip service and a limp-noodled response," said Robert Herrick, a St. Joseph's University sophomore who is white. He stood up and spoke to the crowd, blaming low numbers of minorities and minimal diversity training for the incident. He also noted that the former assistant provost of diversity and inclusion position has been vacant at the university for months.

"I'm really sad that this a problem that we have to address," he said, "but you put a bunch of white people in a place and don't promote the importance of diversity and promote the Jesuit value — yes, you get this. And I am not surprised."

Black Student Union co-president Milan Morris says the students want a better punishment for students who commit racist or biased acts, as well as a voice for students of color.

"To make it a safe space for people who look like us," Morris said.

Mark C. Reed, Ed.D., president of St. Joseph's University sent the following statement:

"Acts of bias, intolerance, hate, harassment and exclusion stand in contrast to the Saint Joseph's University mission, which not only calls for, but insists upon, inclusion, understanding and acceptance through respect and care for the whole person. Our community is working to address issues of concern, to enhance response and communication, to build bridges, brainstorm solutions and nurture our values. Violations of our Community Standards, including bias, will always be investigated in accordance with the policies and procedures described in the student, faculty, and employee handbooks. We have a responsibility to live our mission, to stand up for one another and to step forward when we witness members of our community being treated unfairly or excluded. I am encouraged by our community's engagement in conversation, self-reflection and constructive action."

The FBI reported an increase in the number of hate crimes nationally in 2017.  Locally, the Philadelphia Commission on Human Relations also reported an uptick in the number of hate crimes and acts of bias, with many of the incidents taking place in schools and on college campuses.