By Branden LaCroix
The Center for Inclusive Excellence held a community conversation with FSU students, faculty, and staff March 1 to discuss the state of policing on campus and nationally.
Jeffrey Coleman, vice president of Diversity, Inclusion, and Community Engagement, led the Community Conversation on Race and Policing. He said he views the issues facing the community as an opportunity to “come together collectively, and to discuss and also to understand and to utilize resources that we might need and also look at ways that we can support one another.”
Among those attending the discussion were President Nancy Niemi, Director of the Counseling Center Ben Day, and University Chief of Police John Santoro.
Coleman said the discussion was to be a “judgment-free zone” and told attendees to “agree to disagree and respect difference of opinion.”
He added, “One of the things we also want to be mindful of is that we want to be able to bring all of our identities to campus, our whole self to campus, our intersecting identities. … What can we do on campus to create that space for everyone to feel welcomed and affirmed and supported?”
Santoro said one of the challenges facing University Police is building trust and developing relationships with other departments on campus.
“I think that our officers are very caring and very loving,” he said.
He added his department has created outreach programs to help “engage community members and build some trust.”
Coleman asked what are some of the barriers that are preventing students “from being their true, authentic selves,” and what are some of the ways those barriers can be “deconstructed?”
SGA President Dara Barros said one of those barriers is how students of color feel intimidated by University Police.
She said there was one incident when she went to the University Police regarding parking and was treated poorly and “made to feel small.”
Barros also spoke about the effect of the released body cam video footage of Tyre Nichols, the 29-year-old man who was killed by police in January during a traffic stop.
“Some of us had to sit there and watch another person of color on at least a 30-minute-long video being murdered by one of our own,” she said. “I couldn’t even sit through that whole video because it’s so hurtful and affects our mental health. It affects our own well being and how we feel safe on campus in general.”
She added there are students who are victims of sexual assault who are more comfortable approaching faculty than the police.
Santoro said University Police “undergo various trainings and programs” to help foster relationships with the FSU community.
“It should never be a problem or a barrier at any time for anybody to report to us,” he said.
Dean of Students Meg Nowak Borrego said she spoke with Barros following the incidents she experienced and talked about developing strategies to help her face similar situations in the future, as well as help her speak with the people who can “make change in those spaces.”
She said other students have come to her as well with similar complaints regarding offices they have visited, as well as faculty who asked her for advice on how to help students who have approached them.
“We need to continue to better talk with each other, [and] understand as much as we can when we don't have those experiences in our own lives,” she said.
Nowak Borrego added students are free to use the Dean of Students Office as a resource and said the office works closely with the Counseling Center as well.
Another student attending the discussion said the “root” of the issues of policing in schools needs to be addressed.
The student, who is a commuter from Worcester and is a community organizer, said schools in Worcester have low teacher diversity, and the addition of police in schools has damaged students’ trust in the education and law enforcement systems.
“If they're [police] going to be in the spaces prior to coming to college where trust has already been broken, then I feel like that's one of the roots of the problem that we're not addressing before coming in,” she said.
Cara Pina, a biology professor, said the University has to better protect its “minoritized” students.
“Our students of color shouldn't be the ones that have to be brave to go to the police, when they heard from their peers that bad things happen when they go to the police,” she said.
She added it isn’t necessarily that “bad things” happen when students seek help from University Police, but that the department has a reputation that students from underrepresented groups have to contend with that prevents them from seeking help.
Pina said this includes other “minoritized” students such as LGBTQ+ students.
“I want all of our students to advocate for themselves. And I work really hard to get my students to think about how they can advocate for themselves,” she said. “But it always seems to be that minoritized students are the ones that have to be brave and advocate for themselves when other students don't have to do that.”
Pina said students of color have also raised concerns about the lack of faculty of color whom they can talk to, and the faculty of color whom these students talk to feel overburdened “because there's so many students of color, all trying to talk to so few faculty of color.”
She added, “It's just another thing that we are putting on our minoritized students to get the same things that other students may be getting.”
Ira Silver, a sociology and criminology professor, said the responsibility of making changes on campus should not be placed on the students.
“This is where we have to look inward and take ownership of how to make change and not put it upon students,” he said. “The change has to come from the department, from the particular place on campus where students are not feeling safe.”
Coleman said there is not just an issue of trust, but also an issue of belonging.
“So we need to think about how we're building a sense of belonging, how we're establishing trust, and it shouldn't just be on a core group of students to actually be the ones that have to do more advocating than many of the other students,” he said.
He added as an African American man, despite having friends who are police officers, he is still anxious when approached by law enforcement.
“If I get pulled over, it’s like, ‘Oh, how is this going to go down?’” he asked. “Is this officer going to be understanding? Am I going to be the next person that's going to be on the news the next day? All of those things are going on in the back of my mind.”
Coleman asked the attendees what strategies could be employed to “mitigate against these types of incidents.”
Bridgette Sheridan, a history professor, suggested putting FSU’s commitment to anti-racism front and center in its messaging and resources, as well as holding more educational events concerning anti-racism.
She referenced an incident from the Fall 2022 Semester when a former member of the Board of Trustees made a racist comment. She said, “Faculty and students worked their butts off making this an important agenda and major issue and we still want to be hearing from them.
“We need to be hearing constant messages from administration about how we heard you and we're doing things,” she added.
Robert Donohue, a psychology professor, said the University needs the CIE’s “creativity” and to be proactive in deconstructing the barriers students from underrepresented groups are facing.
“When we're having students come in who are used to experiencing educational systems that are racist, policing systems that are racist, there has to be something very proactive, where we are able to prove to them that that's not true of the systems here,” he said.
Niemi said, “We can only continue to work together to identify the things - the barriers, the issues, the systemic underpinning - of so much that we have both externally and internally and to proactively counteract that to show people that we are working on it.”
She said, “This is the hard work, the loving work, the painful work that we're doing, and I'm so grateful that we have people who are willing to do it.”