Bias incidents spark student rallying


Susquehanna students, faculty and staff received an email from President L. Jay Lemons regarding two incidents that occurred during the week on campus at 11:58 p.m. on Thursday, Feb. 20.

One incident involved two students discovering the drawing of a swastika on the white board in Charlie’s Coffeehouse, where underneath the words “Hitler went to Heaven” were written in response to a question on the white board asking students where they were going for spring break.

The other incident occurred on Wednesday evening when a racial epithet was said to a member of the Juniata men’s basketball team while they were visiting the university.

In his email, Lemons stated that these events were “discouraging,” coming a week after the Feb. 11 symposium “The Swastika: History, Meanings, Uses.” He continued and said, “Such acts run counter to Susquehanna’s commitment to inclusivity and acceptance.”

Also in his email, Lemons also referenced the university’s statement on ethical living, which states: “We are tied to each other by relationships that aim at the well-being of individuals and the University as a whole. We strive to treat all individuals with dignity regardless of their values and origins. We insist that each person deserves freedom from belittling, harassment, exploitation, violence, and any other harm.”

Sophomore Jordan Tepper, one of the students who discovered the Swastika in Charlie’s, said: “When I saw it, it wasn’t even so much the symbol that I noticed first, I noticed that second-hand, but it was the words next to it ‘Hitler went to Heaven’ and that’s really what hit me because I’m Jewish. My whole family is Jewish, so it kind of hit home. It hit a lot harder than I thought it would, cause it was probably someone being funny or thinking that they were being funny and put it up their as a joke.”

Tepper and sophomore Rebecca Hall, who had pointed out the swastika to her, both agreed that they weren’t really sure how long the image had been up on the board.

“When we went in, it was already up so it could have been done days before or minutes before,” Tepper said.

Hall said: “I just stop and read these boards and stuff because they’re there, and people do some types of silly and stupid things on there. It was more just a casual and passing glance that I happened to see it.”

Tepper continued: “I feel that a lot of other students would be like ‘oh someone just wrote it up their as a joke,’ and someone’s going to get a kick out of it, but then there are other people who look at it and say ‘well, someone could really get offended by this’ and take to it in a way that is much more drastic than what we did. I just kind of erased trying to protect other people from getting offended or being offended by it.” Tepper ultimately reported the incident to the Bias Response and Education Team.

Within less than 24 hours after reporting the incident to BRET, Lemons sent out his email and students, faculty and staff alike were drawn to take some form of action. 

Rabbi Kate Palley said: “What was the most amazing to me was by the time I checked email in the morning, the email had gone out from President Lemons, and I had gotten an email from Professor [Michele] DeMary saying that she wanted to do something.. She wanted faculty to come to a rally and she asked for my participation.”

By 11 a.m. on Friday, Feb.21, an email had been sent out by Director of Student Activities Brent Papson notifying about a rally entitled “SU Community United Against Hatred” that would take place at 12 p.m. outside the Lore A. Degenstein Gallery.

DeMary, associate professor of political science, was one of the faculty members to help bring the rally together in such a short period of time. She said:  “That’s the advantage of working in a community where people work together well and it certainly wasn’t just me, I just started the initial emails, but there were a lot of other people who helped out, including student workers who helped read my speech and my colleagues in the department who filled in for classes for me, so it was really a group effort.”

Palley said, “From my understanding it’s the first time that something like this has happened coming from the faculty and I credit Professor DeMary for that and her understanding of the role that faculty can play in really shaping a conversation on campus.”

Palley continued: “There was a lot of rallying and support especially, I think, because it was coming off of the swastika symposium where there had been hundreds of students and staff and faculty and there was a lot of energy in the room and I think there was evidence at the rally of that energy being present and everyone wanting to move forward.”

Agreeing with Palley, DeMary said, “I think there was a lot of interest and people were ready to be mobilized and take action.”

University Chaplin Scott M. Kershner said that he had heard prior to coming to Susquehanna that the university had a history of incidents like these occurring on campus throughout the years. He said that he was “deeply moved by the strength of response and the commitment that I am seeing from people to build the campus culture that we so desire.”

One question on Kershner’s, Palley’s and DeMary’s minds is how to keep this conversation going on around campus and how to make an improvement at Susquehanna based off of these recent events.

DeMary said, “The challenge will always be to keep momentum going. It’s easy to get concerned immediately after something happens, but to keep a level of interest and passion going takes more work.”

DeMary added that it is about being able to do something that may actually make a difference rather than just speaking out.  She continued: “Are there things that we can do that further help people to realize the pain they cause by actions they take? Even if somebody does something unknowingly or unthinkingly, that doesn’t minimize the amount of pain it causes to someone else who is on the receiving end.”

One of the ways members of the student body, faculty and staff are working to take action and make a difference on campus and in the Susquehanna community is through a new group called the Coexist Campaign, which had its first meeting on Feb. 26 in the Degenstein Meeting Rooms at 4:15 p.m.

Palley said, “Part of what the Coexist Campaign can really do and what I am hoping it will do is to be proactive and say ‘no it is not okay.’ Things that compromise human dignity are not okay, whatever form they take.”

First-year Meaghan Wilson, one of the founders of Coexist Campaign, said, “We want to figure out what this organization as a whole, as faculty, staff and students can do together,”

At the first meeting, the group largely discussed and addressed outcomes and what changes they wanted to see happen on Susquehanna’s campus within the next several years.

Palley said, “Largely we’re an activist group, so we’re going to talk about things, but we’re going to do things.”

Palley continued: “We’re the seeds. That’s how I see us. We have the power, and a lot of power to effectively change Susquehanna University. We’re a huge percentage of the people who live here, who work here, study here, who make up a community and we as a group can really effect a lot of change.”