Westfield State University responds to hateful messages

WESTFIELD—Westfield State University and its police force are continuing to investigate what a university official called racist, sexist and hate speech messages that were posted on a message board in one of the campus’s residence halls last week.

Tricia Oliver, Director of Campus Communication for Westfield State University (WSU), said that three racist, sexist and hate speech messages were found on a message board between Sept. 17 and Sept. 19, with a picture of the third such message being posted to social media after it was found on Sept. 19.

The university has responded to the matters in a number of ways, including an investigation into the incidents, assemblies for students and faculty to discuss their concerns and held a “Day of Acknowledgement and Listening” on Sept. 22, following the incidents. In addition, student groups have organized their own gatherings and meetings in response to the hateful messages.

An image captured via social media shows the statements written on the campus of Westfield State University.

“We’re healing, we’re talking, we’re developing an action plan to respond,” Oliver said.

Here is a timeline of events that unfolded at WSU last week.

Tuesday, Sept. 19

According to Oliver, after the first two incidents were reported to the university and the social media post was made around 6:30 p.m. Sept. 19. Earlier in the day, WSU’s Public Safety, Resident Life and Student Life responded and WSU Police began investigating the other incidents. In addition, Residence Life and security staffing were increased, Oliver said, and “all staff were asked to be vigilant,” and counseling services were offered to students.

In addition, Oliver said WSU President Ramon Torrecilha sent a campus-wide email denouncing the acts.

Wednesday, Sept. 20

The following morning on Sept. 20, Oliver said that Torrecilha determined to wake up the residents of the hall where the incidents occurred to show disruption that the incidents could cause, and so the students were awoken at 6:30 a.m.

The students were gathered to meet outside to be addressed by Torrecilha, as well as Vice President for Student Life Carlton Pickron. According to Oliver, the message from the day prior’s email was reinforced during this, and students were asked if they had information to share it through the several different measures the university has, including “Silent Link,” an online anonymous crime reporting web-based system run through the school’s Public Safety Department.

Following this, Oliver said that the Emergency Response Team was assembled and the emergency operations center was activated at 8:30 a.m., which she said acts as an information and call center during responses.

During the day, Oliver said that Torrecilha issued a statement to the media as well as sent another campus-wide email summarizing the “addressing of students in the morning and really driving home the reporting mechanisms for those on campus.”

In addition, Oliver said that Torrecilha, along with Dean of Students Susan LaMontagne and other administrators, met with the Student Government Association (SGA) Executive Board to provide updates on the issue on campus.

Then, at 7 p.m. the SGA held a special meeting to discuss what had taken place. Oliver said that those in attendance included students, including students of color, Torrecilha and staff. Oliver said that students from the Black Student Union and other groups were also leading an effort to meet around the iconic globe on the campus’s green.

“On the green, speakers consisted of students, alumni, faculty, staff and community members concerned about the incident,” Oliver said.

“At that point the dialogue is very public, more and more groups were talking on campus. It was becoming more and more public on campus, on social media,” she said.

Westfield State University President Dr. Ramon Torrecilha (photo courtesy WSU)

Oliver added that while concerns were brought up during the events, there was also a “great thread for a call for unity.”

Following these events, though, Oliver said that “additional racist, sexist and homophobic incidents were reported and additional investigations began,” but a total number was not confirmed.

Thursday, Sept. 22

On the morning of Sept. 21, Oliver said that there was an aim for a similar disruption as there was the day prior, “to underscore the severity, to underscore the fact that these were unacceptable acts and that they would not be tolerated at Westfield State University.”

This meant that in the morning, Oliver said emails were sent to professors and instructors requesting that classes that start at 9:45 a.m. were brought to the green. In addition, staff and students not in classes at that time were also invited.

Oliver said that the assembly included comments from Torrecilha and others were also invited up to speak.

“A lot of concerns came out of the comments but just like night before there was an amazing call to unity,” Oliver said.

During the assembly an announcement was made for the Day of Acknowledgement and Listening, which would be held the following day on campus. The day was designed to allow others to share their thoughts and emotions on the incidents that occurred at the university and would occur during two sessions the following day.

“We knew that the conversation had to be continued,” Oliver said.

In the afternoon, Oliver said that a statement was issued by the SGA, “calling for unity,” and in the evening a third email was sent by Torrecilha, “thanking everyone for their courage,” Oliver said, and addressing the other incidents.

Friday, Sept. 23 through the weekend

On Sept. 22, the Day of Acknowledgement and Listening took place, which allowed people to share thoughts and feelings on the incidents. This included two sessions on campus, with the first one from 10 a.m. to noon involving the entire campus community, and the second session occurring from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. that involved only students.

According to Oliver, the second session was provided because “we wanted students to have that time to themselves.”

Oliver also said that the Emergency Response Center maintained 24-hour operations through the weekend in the case of any other incidents or concerns. Also over the weekend, Oliver said that  counseling services were expanded, human resources for staff and faculty were expanded and staffing and security were increased.

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