It is up to institutions of higher education to protect their most vulnerable students.
One of the greatest values of a college education is the opportunity to live, work, and study with people from completely different backgrounds. It exposes you to new ways of thinking, living, and opens your perspective beyond your own upbringing. When colleges take measures to properly orient students for this experience, meaningful dialogues and greater cultural awareness occurs. Too often, campuses fail to provide sustainable support and marginalized students are the ones who suffer the most.
Such was the case at the University of Hartford in Connecticut, where a white freshman named Brianna Brochu created such a hostile living environment that her Black roommate, Chennel “Jazzy” Rowe, was forced to move out. As Rowe was leaving, she was made aware of social media posts where Brochu called her a “Jamaican Barbie” and bragged about contaminating her personal items with bodily fluids throughout the month and a half they’d been living together.
It was then that Rowe went public in a Facebook Live video and demanded that Brochu be held responsible for her racist bullying and harassment. She accused the campus of attempting to sweep the incident under the rug by quietly arresting Brochu without alerting her. She also spoke of ongoing medical issues as a result of Brochu’s abuse and being forced to come out-of-pocket for health services on campus. Rowe later told local radio station WTIC that school officials threatened to remove her from campus for speaking about the incident publicly.
It was only after Rowe’s video that Brochu was arrested by Hartford Police and expelled from campus. Brochu confessed to third-degree criminal mischief and second-degree breach of peace; both minor charges that carry a maximum sentence of six months each. Police then added a charge of intimidation based on bigotry or bias to Brochu’s case, a hate crime charge. Many argue that Brochu should be charged with attempted murder for essentially poisoning her then-roommate. The National Fair Housing Alliance issued a statement saying the harassment may be in violation of the Fair Housing Act.
University of Hartford’s response to the incident leaves much to be desired. President Greg Woodward has yet to identify Brochu’s actions as a racially motivated hate crime, though he promised to “do everything in my power to work with our community to address related concerns together.” In an official statement, he claims that Rowe is being afforded all of the academic and personal resources the university can offer, but does not mention how Rowe will be compensated for the medical expenses related to Brochu’s harassment. It makes one wonder what will become of the $80,000 four-year scholarship Brochu forfeited when she was expelled.
While social media has allowed these incidents to gain more public attention, such issues have been swept under the rugs for years, forcing students of color to transfer or drop out to avoid hostile environments. As the university’s most recent update admits, the actions of Briana Brochu are reflective of a larger society, one that just last year elected a white supremacist as president. It only makes sense that the racial violence and intimidation that gained steam following 45’s election, would make its way to college campuses. It’s the responsibility of faculty and administrators to combat it and provide a safe learning environment for all students, particularly those who have been historically disadvantaged within the educational system.
Colleges are just beginning to accept their responsibility in facilitating these dialogues and creating ongoing opportunities for cross-cultural exchanges. Students at the University of Missouri at Columbia must now complete mandatory “citizenship” training, which includes a series of workshops that allows students to share opinions and ask questions about diversity. Oregon State University requires students to take an online “social justice” course. Only time will tell whether these initiatives succeed in creating more cohesion on campus, but it is imperative that schools continue engaging on these topics throughout students’ academic careers.
Shaun Harper, executive director of the University of Pennsylvania’s Center for the Study of Race and Equity in Education, told Inside Higher Ed that colleges that limit diversity programming to freshman orientation will continue to see problems arise on campus.
“Orientation is a time of information overload,” Harper said. “These are 17- and 18-year-olds who are excited about getting off to college, who are saying goodbye to their parents. They have a ton of emotions. They’re not all that excited to sit through one session after another on one topic after another. I’m afraid that some diversity discussions get sort of lost because it’s all too much.”
As we begin to address the racial inequalities that pervade every American institution, it’s becoming increasingly clear just how much work our educational systems have to do in acknowledging and extracting themselves from this bloody legacy. This works extends beyond diversity and multicultural programming; it means taking a closer look at founders, donors, and alumni, and admitting where they were complicit in upholding systemic racism. It means providing ongoing support to marginalized students and believing them when they bring issues to faculty and staff.
Since their creation, college campuses in America have represented a place where young people can express their frustrations and demand greater accountability. They’ve been popular sites for organizing boycotts and have influenced policy and change. As our nation contends with an uprising not unlike the ones that occurred during the Civil Rights Movement, it is up to these institutions of higher learning to accommodate these discussions while protecting their most vulnerable populations.