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BIRT to address bias on campus

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On Tuesday, February 22, Chaplain Carolyn Fure-Slocum emailed a letter to all students, faculty, and staff on behalf of the BIRT working group. Along with Thomas Hiura ’17 and Abhimanyu Lele ’16, Fure-Slocum is a co-chair of a working group tasked by Dean Livingston and current CSA President Marielle Foster ’16 with investigating the possibility of implementing a Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT) at Carleton. The working group, made up of ten students, faculty, and staff, strove to answer questions Carleton students may have about what a BIRT would look like: Do we need a BIRT? How would we implement it? What have other institutions done to address bias incidents on campus?

The goal of BIRT would be to promote a healthy, inclusive, safe community for all Carleton students.

“Hopefully, this institutional change will not only be a more effective way to respond to bias incidents in a way that makes students feel heard, but is also part of many more efforts to ensure the safety of marginalized students on campus,” said Hiura.

According to Hiura, ideally a BIRT would remedy the distrust that has been growing between students of marginalized identities and the administration.

“The need for a BIRT arises out of many bias-related incidents on campus that students have felt haven’t had clear or transparent administrative or community response, which is very frustrating,” said Hiura. “For students who experience these things all the time, it can feel extremely discouraging that when they do decide to do something, to try to bring it up to the school, there’s at least a perception that nothing tends to happen. So that’s why we want to make sure that the college has a consistent framework for how to respond to these things. That’s not to say that they haven’t been responding to these things in every case in the past, but it hasn’t been clear how.”

“The drive to create [a BIRT] on the part of students has not been anything new,” added Lele. While there are existing statements on the freedom of speech, discrimination and academic freedom, Lele sees the BIRT as a more concrete supplement to these statements.

“That language exists. There’s a code that talks about speech, it says that ‘this sort of thing is okay, this sort of thing is not,’ but it’s still really really vague in its definitions. It doesn’t specify consequences, it doesn’t specify why it’s a problem, it doesn’t talk about how we can address these things even if it’s not like conduct violation,” Lele said.

Fure-Slocum acknowledged that the Community Concern Form, which is the proposed first step of dealing with reporting a bias incident, is a useful tool, but one whose role has been unclear in the past.

“I think now people do send in Community Concern Forms around bias incidents, and they don’t necessarily know what’s going to happen to it. So this is putting into writing what does happen or should happen and then working it through,” said Fure-Slocum.

There have, however, been some questions raised regarding BIRT. Some say the implementation of BIRT would restrict freedom of speech, or that anonymous reporting of bias incidents might lead to witch hunts.

“When the sexual misconduct policy developed the Community Concern Form,” said Fure-Slocum, “that was my worry too, that there would be witch hunts regarding somebody’s actions, and I’ve been really impressed, which is what gives me trust that indeed, we can handle this well.”

Fure-Slocum also said that the privilege of speech is not the only one to consider.

“In my mind, it’s not just free speech and academic freedom, it’s also religious freedom, but I don’t think that’s always there, so how do you keep that balanced with other forms of identity?”

Lele said that the idea of BIRT is not to produce a list of banned words or phrases, but rather to help students understand the impact of their speech on others.

“In no circumstances has freedom of speech been an absolute thing. There’s always been a balance between freedom of expression on one hand and the impacts of your expression on other people on the other hand. Freedom of expression doesn’t necessarily mean freedom from consequence. We’re not saying, ‘Here’s a list of phrases you can’t use in conversation, everything else is ok.’ No, that’s absolutely not the point of this. It’s to say that, if you say something and it hurts somebody because it’s perpetuating this structure that they’ve been struggling through all their lives, then let’s help you understand why. Hopefully with that understanding you won’t say it again,” said Lele.

Additionally, the draft that the working group proposed outlines a BIRT that deals with student-to-student issues and incidences. Bias incidents involving faculty or staff would be handled by either the Dean of the College or Human Resources, respectively. The question of student-to-student classroom bias incidents, however, is unaddressed, and is one BIRT may need to consider before implementation.

“I think we had been picturing outside the classroom issues like texting, social media. I think we also need to also pay a little more attention to the classroom. Indeed we’re looking for that kind of feedback,” said Fure-Slocum.

Lele points to the work that other community groups are simultaneously working on to create a safer community at Carleton.

“You can’t take this initiative in isolation–this, the community conversations, the work that CEDI is doing, the work that OIIL and the GSC are doing, combine to make this campus one where people are generally more sensitive [and] maybe think a little bit harder about the stuff they say and do,” Lele said. “We have a campus with students who have a lot of privileged identities, and hopefully they are able to better reflect on the advantages those give them and what that means for their behavior.”

“In no way do we intend to demonize people simply for having privilege,” said Hiura.

Lele agreed, saying that what matters is what students do with their privilege. “Contributing to making this community better or contributing to a status quo where this community has a lot of work to do are two very different things. We can all do better. We expect better of every single person at Carleton, not just people of tremendous privilege,” said Hiura. Moving forward, the working group is continuing to seek community feedback on implementing a BIRT at Carleton. The implementation of BIRT would also likely include a revision or revisiting of the current Community Standards.

As far as the current response from the Carleton community, Lele said that there has been both “positive and negative response for sure. A lot of positive, from students who are saying ‘Yes, this will help build trust among students of marginalized identities when the administration isn’t addressing some of the issues we face.’ There’s been some negative response, some of it from the free speech side, but I will say a lot of that has been from a misunderstanding from what we are trying to do. Overall, the response is—I don’t know if positive is the right word, because like nobody enjoys the need for this committee, but the response has been ‘Yes, this is something our community needs.’’’

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