By Tony Brino and Shannon Hoffman
Videography by Andrew Wakelee and Shannon Hoffman
At last night’s Homecoming forum at Kehr Union, students testified to President Soltz and other university administration about their experience at the Homecoming dance held on Nov. 1st. There was unanimous agreement among the students who spoke that the police force was excessive and racially motivated.
Countless bystanders at the dance were sprayed with mace, as confirmed by students who spoke at the forum and by a mass email sent to the campus community by President Soltz.
Students also spoke about forcibly, sometimes violently, being forced out of the Kehr Union and surrounding area with night sticks and guns.
“After two unsuccessful attempts to diffuse an escalating situation, a decision was made to end the event,” President Soltz said in his email to the students, sent on Nov. 3. After University police deemed the crowd too unruly for them to control themselves, Town and State Police were asked to assist.
Students compared the aftermath of the canceled dance to something out of the Civil Rights era, except without fire hoses.
The forum, initiated and moderated by President Soltz, drew a crowd to Kehr Union nearing 300, most of whom were African American students present at the Homecoming dance.
“We’re here tonight to talk about a very unfortunate incident that happened a week ago on our campus,” said President Soltz. “The main focus tonight is to listen to people.”
The Students Speak Up
Sophomore Courtney Jones, a CA in Columbia Hall, was the first of many students to share her reaction to the incident.
Jones said she was among the roughly 500 students standing in a line that stretched out of the Kehr Union when the dance was cancelled due to a power outage and BU police started forcing people to exit.
A small fight broke out between two students when an officer pushed a student into the crowd, Jones said. It was then that the police started pushing and shouting at students to move. “I feel it is important to mention these officers never mentioned to us where to go. They were pushing us toward the entrance. We were not being defiant,” said Jones.
Jones was in the front of the line near the Kehr entrance and was one the first students to be sprayed with mace. As she and her friends exited, she said, they saw a row of police near Schuylkill Hall with SWAT gear and large dogs.
Continually sprayed with mace and hit with night sticks, Jones and her friends were pushed into the now-chaotic crowd. One of her friends with epilepsy, and recently released from the hospital, began hyperventilating.
Jones said she asked a police officer to allow her friend to go to the hospital, or at least get out of the crowd.
“The officer looked me in the face and said, ‘I do not care,'” said Jones. Another officer then sprayed Jones and her friends directly in the face, she said.
Jones’s story was not unique—Nearly every student who spoke claimed to have received or witnessed excessive police force.
The police, while virtually surrounding the crowd, repeatedly told students to move but never told them exactly where to go, Jones and other students noted.
Junior David Despot said that when the SWAT team arrived, he approached an officer, hands visible, and asked him if the dance was over and if they’d be able to come back. He said he was told nothing and instead shoved in the ribs by a club.
“I witnessed one male receive mace in the face, even though he had his hands in the air and was not moving,” said Despot.
Despot said the police instigated the violence and urged Soltz “to not let this injustice get swept under the rug,” a statement that elicited thunderous applause.
Many students who spoke said they will no longer recommend Bloomsburg to family and friends who are prospective students. The Vice President of Bloomsburg University’s Minority Recruitment said that she will now find it difficult to honestly tell potential students that this is a safe campus for them.
Students consistently said they witnessed bystanders being sprayed with mace and hit with night sticks as a virtually all-white police force did little to disperse a crowd of almost all-black students.
A member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority called the law enforcement’s behavior “blatantly racist.” Nor was it an isolated incident, she said, pointing to the administrative hostility she allegedly faces in organizing on-campus events, as well as police responses to past incidents involving African American students.
Many other students either agreed or further claimed that the police response was indeed racist.
Claire Hollenbach, a student who didn’t attend the dance, told the crowd that “as a white middle-class female,” anyone who denied that the police treatment was a racially-motivated was “ignorant.”
She called Soltz’s email to students a “lie,” and asked him to reassure students that this will never happen again.
Arrested When Helping Friends
Two of the three students who were arrested and charged with failure to disperse and disorderly conduct both said they were trying to help their friends escape from the mace when they were knocked to the ground and put in handcuffs.
The students are officially awaiting trial, but others are optimistic that the charges will be dropped. Sophomore Tyree Arnold, one of the two students arrested said in an interview before the forum that his first court date was cancelled after the arresting officer failed to show up.
The University Responds by Investigation, Counseling
Soltz had little to say throughout the night and didn’t directly respond to any of the students’ comments. He didn’t mention or address the students facing charges.
He said that he is in the process of assembling a panel of specialists to investigate the incident and make recommendations for the future. He invited students to speak with the Head of Equity and Diversity, who was present at the meeting, if they wanted to be included in the investigation. Forum go-ers also had the opportunity to turn in their written statements for review in the investigation.
Soltz said he hopes the investigation will be completed and released before the end of the semester. He also noted that counseling service will be available for students who were particularly affected by the incident, as several students announced last night that they will never forget about what happened.
Senior Sherrol Browne, an Assistant Hall Director in Luzerne Hall, met with many students who were injured during the incident and gave Soltz and University Administration a list of suggestions about how to deal with the incident.
Among the recommendations were: the University should pay for the medical costs of students who were hospitalized or needed treatment because of the incident; the Bloomsburg University Police Department should be retrained and should revise protocol for dealing with “riots;” apologize to all Bloomsburg students and an exoneration of those who were arrested; more funding for diversity programs and more hiring of minorities for faculty and administrative positions.
Forum Proves Productive
Following the forum, President Soltz told BU Now that he felt the forum was productive, and that he did not expect for anything to actually be resolved last night. “My goal was to allow students to express their concerns.”
He said that there was nothing he heard last night at the forum that was shocking, as he had already heard several points of view from students who work in his office. He was impressed by the consistency of the testimonies made by the students.
Freshman student, Victoria Wiley attended he dance and forum, and after the forum she said that she believes that President Soltz is genuine about wanting to hear the students’ voices, and to make a change.
Wiley explained that when she was accepted to Bloomsburg University, she was invited into a family, and she never would have expected this kind of treatment from her college.
She was one of the students already inside of the dance when things got ugly outside, but watched the events unfold from the window. “It didn’t seem to be unruly. It looked like I could have broken [the fight] up,” she said. “Those outside officers were not necessary.”
The Council Responds
Campus and town police were contacted by BU Now immediately following the incident, but both refused to comment.
In a town council meeting last night, Bloomsburg officials seemed relatively sure the incident was handled efficiently.
Mayor Dan Knorr has relied thus far on information from President Soltz, Chief Leo Sokoloski and local media concerning the dance. He told the council that he has been working pretty closely with the University to learn more about how the incident unfolded, and what can be done to make sure something like this doesn’t happen again. “The primary goal of ending the event was safety. There are questions of racism and that is something we need to take very seriously. I think Chief Leo [Sokoloski] takes it seriously too.”
Council member Diane Levane added that she watched footage from the incident on BloomUToday and read the press reports, then reviewed the procedure put forth by the Bloomsburg Police Department. She approved of the actions taken by all police forces. “The University is aware of what the procedures are when they call and ask the Bloomsburg police to assist, and I think our officers showed exemplary behavior,” Levane said. “I think the University officials and all tried to do their best in what could have been – and I stress what would could have been – a very bad situation.”