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Racist social media incident investigation is complete

Sanctions for suspects are a week away. But will UW-Eau Claire chancellor ever be able to publicize them?

The exterior of Schofield Hall, the administration building at the UW-Eau Claire. Photo courtesy of UW-Eau Claire.

From Wisconsin Examiner

An investigation into a series of racist Snapchat social media messages circulated among members of the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire football team has concluded, but it will be next week before sanctions for those involved in the incident can be finalized, the university’s chancellor said Wednesday.

Chancellor James C. Schmidt told the Wisconsin Examiner in a telephone interview he is consulting with legal staff about sanctions and what can be disclosed because of federal laws governing student privacy.

“I’m simply asking them to show me where the line is that I can be as transparent as possible and still protect the interests of the students that were involved,” Schmidt said. 

The stringent privacy regulations under the federal Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, known as FERPA, may conflict with the greater disclosure that Eau Claire students have sought in response to the initial incident and other complaints of bias and hate on the campus, he acknowledged. “People want more transparency,” Schmidt said. “And we have a federal law that actually prohibits much transparency in these [situations].”

Five football players have been suspended from the team after a thread of Snapchat messages shared among a group of team members became public. The messages mocked an African American student group, Black Male Empowerment, and included photographs of a Ku Klux Klan cross burning. 

In response there have been gatherings of students to discuss the experiences of students of color on the campus, as well as a silent protest on Monday that included the presentation of a list of demands to Schmidt and the administration. Among the demands were student positions on how those involved in the original incident should be sanctioned as well as what the university should do to encourage support for diversity and inclusion and combat discrimination and racism on campus.

Schmidt observed that the original offense took place on social media and was widely disseminated, with the students involved easily identified. 

“Therefore, some said there’s no need for an investigation, you know, and [there were] some calls for immediate expulsion,” he said. At the same time, however, “the Dean of Students has an obligation to not only talk to the students who were identified, but also talk to people who were affected by it, including the Black Male Empowerment group, and others.”

Even under the circumstances, “we want to make sure we have it right, and make sure that we protect the due process rights as well,” he continued. 

“So you have the tension of people wanting immediate resolution because this was a heinous and horrendous act of hate that that terrorized many people on our campus. …  Many people don’t see that. But if you are on campus and you talk to the people, this is a genuine, visceral fear response.”

Schmidt said he has made it a point not to read social media responses, including to his own tweets about the incident, but rather speak and listen directly to people on campus sharing their own reactions to the incident and its aftermath.

On Monday, he joined the silent student walkout and rally at which he welcomed a list of  student demands to address the incident, and stood in support of the protest directed against racism on campus. 

Asked about complaints in which some who have defended those who first circulated the racist messages and complained that Black Male Empowerment organization was racist, Schmidt replied, “I think that’s hogwash. That is, in my opinion, a terrible argument to make. The Black Male Empowerment group on this campus is a phenomenal organization. It has a rich history of why it was developed.”

The organization, he said, has shown itself to be a positive force for students of color on the majority-white Eau Claire campus.

“This is a group of young men who come together to change the narrative of what it means to be a black man,” Schmidt said. “And so they present themselves as role models on the campus.”

Leaders of the organization  “view [that] part of their role is to help give people who don’t have a lot of experience interacting with black men a truer image of what that is versus what they’ve seen on the media, whether it’s in movies or news,” he said.

The organization, Schmidt pointed out, has not focused on demands for specific punishment for the students accused in the Snapchat incident. “Their focus is working on systemic change at the university to make a difference, not only for current students but future generations of students,” he said, and credited the organization’s leadership “for trying to lift the conversation to making a difference — that it is not about vengeance, it’s about making a difference.”

Besides BME’s leaders, Schmidt said he was proud of the organizers of Monday’s walkout and protest, as well as of students, faculty, and staff who took part.

“There was zero conflict with that group,” he said. “It was really stunning. And I think that’s the reason it was so powerful.”

Schmidt says his own professional background has helped prepare him for the turmoil the campus is now going through. “My background is in student advocacy — when I was in college, I was heavily involved in student government,” he says. After graduating from college with a political science degree, he worked as a congressional aid, then switched to working in higher education administration. There his first job was at a technical college in Austin, Minn., just after  a protracted strike at the Hormel plant in the city, where he started as a financial aid director — “which was an extension of my student advocacy,” Schmidt says.

“I had to learn to listen carefully. You learn that not all students are alike,” he continues. “It was a humbling experience as a 22-year-old to have a 55-year-old man in your office you know had a great paying job at Hormel, and all of a sudden, he gets nothing.”

Advocating for students is demanding, he said. “One of the things that’s difficult as a student advocate is to hear your students in pain and hear the impact on them.”