In response to campuswide discussions regarding alleged racial aggression by Public Safety officers, President Tom Rochon acknowledged the issue in a statement to the campus community Sept. 6 and announced Ithaca College is planning to create a new community review board for the campus to report Public Safety concerns and is researching the purchase of body cameras for officers.
In a statement, Rochon said it was a “college-wide issue that needs ongoing attention.” According to the announcement, the review board would be an impartial avenue to report concerns. Both officers and students suggested to Rochon that body cameras be purchased, he said.
Resident assistants have been protesting alleged racial aggression by Public Safety officers, stemming from experiences of members of the African, Latino, Asian and Native American community on campus and two comments made by officers during the RA training Aug. 18.
According to RAs who attended the meeting, Officer Terry O’Pray said racial profiling does not occur at the college, and Officer Jon Elmore showed RAs various weapons, and when he showed a black BB gun, he said he would shoot anyone he saw with one on campus. RAs related it to the November 2014 shooting of Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy who was shot while carrying a black BB gun. The officer involved in that shooting claimed he had no way of distinguishing the BB gun from a real one.
A group of RAs is requesting to directly address O’Pray and Elmore, but neither has been made directly available to them in two subsequent meetings, one held Aug. 25 and the other held Sept. 2. RAs protested the Sept. 2 meeting.
An estimated eight RAs held a meeting Sept. 8 to talk about the statement and plans moving forward.
Senior Rita Bunatal said the RAs are beginning to reach out to other groups and students on campus because this is not just an RA issue.
The college is also planning on completing work on new guidelines to increase the hiring of diverse faculty and staff.
Rochon said the college expects all members of the campus community to treat others with respect and compassion.
“This applies especially to Public Safety officers and all others in positions of authority,” he said. “Ithaca College is an environment for learning — for open and thoughtful interaction with each other. Incidents of bias and racism, while unacceptable in any setting, are especially intolerable on our college campus.”
Two other ongoing initiatives mentioned, which the college had already announced, were the hiring of an external consultant for a new campus-climate survey and the recent establishment of a Council on Diversity and Inclusion, which is co-chaired by Belisa Gonzalez, associate professor in the Center for the Study of Culture, Race, and Ethnicity, and Linda Petrosino, dean of the School of Health Sciences and Human Performance. The committee will begin meeting this fall.
Benjamin Rifkin, provost and vice president for educational affairs, has been charged with overseeing initiatives.
Dominick Recckio, Student Government Association president, said Rochon’s statement was a step in the right direction.
“This is a step forward,” Recckio said. “I think the president publicly acknowledging that Ithaca College is ‘not immune’ to the issues of the world and that we need to look at them on our own scale and say ‘What can we do’ … Having Provost Rifkin make it a top priority, I think it’s a step forward.”
However, Recckio said he also acknowledged the statement isn’t the end of what must be done.
“This doesn’t fix the problem,” he said. “This is step one of 25.”
The steps to begin addressing the issue will come through conversations with students of color and the group of RAs that protested, Recckio said. He said he was looking forward to helping students of color feel heard on campus.
“I’m not trying to speak for all of the students. I’m trying to let all the students have their voice heard,” he said. “I don’t have all the answers, but I will work with anyone and everyone to get them … and so will our entire exec board.”
Recckio said after listening to stories from RAs and students of color on campus, he believes Public Safety treats students of color unfairly.
While he doesn’t have the power to enact these changes at the college, Recckio said he does have access and will try to help get students of color on committees to help address these issues.
In the announcement, Rochon acknowledged that the college needs to do better.
“It is not enough to say that issues of disrespect, insensitivity and racial bias exist everywhere,” he said. “We need, all of us, to do better in adopting an empathetic, humble listening posture on the experiences and perceptions we each bring to our learning community. It is only in this way that Ithaca College will become the community of learning, personal growth and mutual respect that it is intended to be.”