Rash of Racism Complaints Hit UWSP
University says name-calling, racial slurs have prompted heightened security patrols
By Brandi Makuski
Stevens Point police say they’re working with UWSP officials to combat a recent string of racism complaints on campus.
Between Sept. 1 and Oct. 10, 13 reports of what university officials are calling “bias-related incidents” have been received by UW-Protective Services and the dean of students office.
In a Sept. 28 campus-wide email, UWSP Chancellor Bernie Patterson acknowledged several incidents he referred to as, “verbally harassing and physically frightening.”
“I condemn these troubling acts in the strongest possible terms,” Patterson’s email read in part. “Those who would hurl racial insults from a passing vehicle or other acts of bias show ignorance and disrespect. They threaten the very freedoms on which universities thrive.”
The complaints, according to Troy Seppelt, dean of students, all stem from verbal incidents involving students of color, though he also referenced incidents of bias-related vandalism.
“Most of the concerns have been verbal statements made by someone else, either directly to a student or someone driving through campus,” Seppelt said. “We have had some vandalism related to LGBTQ students — safe zone signs in residences halls, for example, were ripped down and torn up, but nothing physical, thankfully.”
Seppelt added while complaints that rise to the level of criminality must be reported by the university, some complaints might never reach the university’s administration.
“It really depends on what the student wants to do,” Seppelt said. “For forms of interpersonal violence, we have an online report for students, faculty, staff, neighbors, to report incidents of bias or perceived hate. Those come directly to us. [But] students might also visit with a faculty person they trust; they could call PD — it really depends what’s best for the student in that moment.”
Seppelt said the university has requested an increase in police patrols, saying the it has a “great partnership” with the Stevens Point Police Department.
“We’re working with the university — in particular the dean of students — and we have also attended meetings with minority groups on campus and will be attending more,” said Assistant Chief Tom Zenner. “Obviously, if we have concerns from any member of our community we have to address it and investigate.”
Zenner the concerns reported by the university involve racial remarks as well as one incident during which a vehicle swerved into a puddle to intentionally splash someone with water. The reports, he said, were made with the university and to his knowledge, none have come through the law enforcement dispatch center.
Police Chief Marty Skibba said the university generally utilizes its own policy to handle campus issues, but providing extra patrols in the area can only help increase safety.
“The students don’t stay within the walls of the campus for those four years,” Skibba said. “Generally, the more eyes you can put on a situation, the less likely it becomes something we have to intervene in later on, so we will be assisting Protective Services with those extra patrols.”
In turn, officers from UW-Protective Services have increased their own patrols, according to Seppelt, and are also patrolling areas further away from campus, saying, “they can do what every other citizen can do, which is call the police; having extra eyes out there, that’s positive for any community.”
When asked how he would respond to the childhood adage, “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me,” Seppelt said he believed that based on the complaints, students genuinely felt concerned for their safety.
“As someone who gets to read all of the reports, I believe everyone of them we’ve received,” he said. “The people reporting them are telling the truth, and they are telling their truth.”
He also believes the “sticks and stones” phrase creates an environment of hate.
“Those people who ascribe to a philosophy of ‘sticks and stones’ are the same ones who would say, ‘boys will be boys’ when we’re talking about interpersonal violence,” Seppelt said. “They’re the same ones who might say, ‘so what, he pushed him in the hallway in middle school?’ That’s bullying. And so I don’t ascribe to that. How do you engender a society of care? You don’t do that with phrases like, ‘sticks and stones’ or ‘they’re only words’ or ‘boys will be boys’. This has impacted a sense of safety for some of our students — and student safety is the university’s number one priority.”
Patterson’s email also included a call to action for students.
“If you see something, say something. If you witness incidents of bias in residence halls, academic buildings or anywhere on campus, notify the dean of students office,” Patterson wrote. “If you see a vehicle operating in a threatening manner or hear racial slurs, report it. Record license numbers with your phone. If you feel threatened, call 911 immediately, state your location and ask for a police officer to meet you.”
Patterson closed his email with, “We will not tolerate interpersonal violence, oppression or behaviors that threaten the dignity or safety of anyone.”
Requests for comment left with the university’s Black Student Union and Latino Student Alliance have not been returned.