West Virginia Wesleyan College Student Body President Lauren Hatcher speaks at Friday's press conference. Hatcher said a task force working to address student concerns regarding campus security had been formed and will meet weekly until the end of the semester.

Wesleyan students call for action after incidents involving campus security

BUCKHANNON – West Virginia Wesleyan College, which has, for decades, affectionately been referred to as “My Home Among the Hills” in both word and song by students, staff, faculty and alumni has started to feel a bit less welcoming to some campus community members.

A student-led group called Our Home Among the Hills said as much Friday when they held a press conference on the steps of the campus’s administration building. The group expressed concern about incidents involving campus security, listing allegations of harassment, racial profiling and threats of violence.

While administration officials on Friday said a task force involving student Senate leaders and resident directors has been formed specifically to address those concerns, several students who spoke at the press conference said they felt President Joel Thierstein and other administration officials had been “dismissive” of their concerns.

At the outset of the press conference, student Jakob Spruce summarized the problem, saying, “All too often, we have witnessed and been impacted by actions of security that do not seek to maintain a safe and secure living environment for students, but instead threaten, disrespect and punish us and our peers, especially students of color, LGBTQ+ students and women.

“The continued engagement by security personnel of punitive control, dismissal of protocol, racist and misogynistic assertions and threats of violence towards students clearly demonstrates the numerous ways in which the functions of security on this campus stands as an antithesis to the mission of this institution.”

Chris McGraw, who delivered a statement on behalf of students, said Our Home Among the Hills members were motivated by their love for the ideal Wesleyan represents, including self-discovery, intellectual rigor and social justice.

Our Home Among the Hills member Chris McGraw read a statement on behalf of affected students.

McGraw said students shouldn’t be “surveilled and policed in our homes … disproportionately punished and targeted because of the color of our skin or our gender presentation … or propositioned by those people who are supposed to be keeping us safe, those people who hold power and the keys to our rooms.”

McGraw went on to reference a specific incident that allegedly took place Feb. 24, during which “a security guard threatened and verbally abused two students of color for nearly an hour.”

“During this altercation, the security guard threatened to ‘kick the [expletive] out of’ the two students in addition to threatening the students with arrest through collaboration with public authorities,” he said.

According to McGraw, the incident had been reported to administration officials by March 1 “by multiple individuals through different channels.”

McGraw said the security guard involved in the incident is still employed with the college.

“There has been no action taken to assuage the fear of students who know that this guard is still on campus, walking around our homes … at any hour of the day or night,” he said. “The administration claims legal protections bar them from sharing how the guard was sanctioned.”

McGraw listed 10 demands Our Home Among the Hills is making and pledged the group would not back down until they are met.

“We will not be placated. We will not be ignored. We will not be silenced. We will not back down from our demands,” he said.

Among the 10 are a demand that a director of safety and security position be filled by someone with a background in that field; security is currently under Wesleyan’s Chief Financial Officer, Scott McKinney, which students say is a conflict of interest because security officers write tickets, generating revenue for the college.

The students have also asked for an external hire to fill the role of Dean of Students; demanded that students be made aware of their rights during any situation in which security is involved; and requested that Campus Life staff be involved in all room searched “to ensure transparency and accountability of the security staff.”

During Friday’s press conference, Student Body President Lauren Hatcher said a task force had been created to respond to concerns and has met twice this week already – March 26 and March 27. The task force is comprised of Student Senate officers and two resident directors and is co-chaired by David McCauley in his capacity as the college’s general legal counsel and Dr. James Moore, Dean of Faculty and chief academic officer.

Hatcher said on Thursday, March 28, the task force notified the campus community about plans to address student concerns.

For instance, college officials will coordinate and sponsor a private workshop near the current academic year’s end for security personnel, which will include information on Title VII, profiling, room searches, campus engagement of local law enforcement, harassment and more, Hatcher said.

Students gather for the 1 p.m. press conference Friday.

In a press release, Wesleyan’s new director of marketing and communications, Larry Orman, said the school is dedicated to maintaining and upholding a safe, just and egalitarian campus environment.

“West Virginia Wesleyan College is committed to creating and fostering a diverse and inclusive community and recognizes its importance to our educational mission as we prepare students for leadership and service in an increasingly interconnected world,” Orman wrote. “The college has a long history of working closely with students whenever concerns are raised.

“In keeping with that tradition, the college administration is in ongoing communication with student body leaders to ensure that all concerns are heard and addressed.”

Several hours prior to the press conference, Moore, the Dean of the Faculty, told My Buckhannon the college has been working diligently to address students’ worries since the topic came up at a town-hall-style forum Thierstein had been facilitating.

“Since that time, we’ve been working to engage the students on addressing the concerns and looking into them.”

Moore said he facilitated a meeting March 21 that involved student leadership, resident directors and affected students. In addition, prior to Friday’s press conference, student Senate officers had held an open session “so that students could voice any further concerns that they may have had so that student Senate leadership would be advised and apprised and be able to represent their views at this task force,” Moore said.

Although the college officials did not specify the exact number of security personnel the school employs, Orman and McKinney said, “The college has a combination of full- and part-time officers. The number on duty varies depending, for example, on size of public events on campus.”

When asked if any members of campus security had been disciplined relative to the concerns students raised, Moore said issues had been addressed through human resources procedures when appropriate.

Moore said the task force’s work will be ongoing.

“Part of the task force’s work here is to be looking at our policies – all of our policies – but particularly around security and also around student rights and responsibilities and to ensure that everybody’s doubly aware of them and that we’re focusing on maintaining appropriate training and guidelines,” he said. “It’s an ongoing process, and we want to make sure that we continue to provide a safe environment for all of our students.”

“I think it’s really notable that the task force has gotten up and running so quickly and we’re getting some work done,” he added.

Moore said staff and faculty will undergo training during the next Community Day – formerly known as the annual staff and faculty retreat – regarding Title VII.

“We are going to be working on doing Title VII training and awareness, Title VII being that part of federal law that deals with minorities and LGBTQ individuals [and protected classes], and have discussions with them about student rights … We’re going to engage the entire campus community in those types of things during that Community Day.”

Moore said, as Hatcher did, that a private workshop is being planned for security personnel prior to the end of the semester.

“We’ve taken some initial steps already,” he said, adding that the task force will meet on a weekly basis until the end of the semester.

Moore said he was proud of the passion Our Home Among the Hills members and student leaders have exhibited.

“They want us to be good, they want us to do better all the time, and we’re asking ourselves, ‘can we do better?’ and I think that’s a good thing,” Moore told My Buckhannon. “We’ve got passionate students here, and I really celebrate that passion. Students all over the country are passionate now and raising concerns and there are protests happening in places. I’m just really proud of all of our students.”

However, Jules Kessler, who played a rendition of “My Home Among the Hills” following the press conference, said he doesn’t believe one or two diversity and sensitivity training workshops will get to the root of the problem.

Our Home Among the Hills member Jules Kessler plays “My Home Among the Hills” at the conclusion of Friday’s press conference.”

“The task force actually doesn’t involve any of the people who are in Our Home Among the Hills at this point,” he told the media Friday. “It involves no one who has been personally harmed by these issues.

“The big issue is that the task force doesn’t involve anyone who’s been personally harmed, and we don’t feel that one implicit bias training — one module of training — is going to fix these dynamics that are really deeply systemic.”

What Our Home Among the Hills wants to see, he said, is a concrete timeline.

“We would like to just see a timeline in terms of the implementation of all our demands,” he said. “When will a new director of security be hired? And how will students be involved in hiring that security director? When will a dean of students be hired?”

Current students weren’t the only group to express their dismay at the alleged incidents involving security personnel.

Press packets distributed to media outlets contained a letter from more than 100 alumni expressing support for the students’ actions.

“As graduates of Wesleyan, we are reminded of the college’s core values: intellectual rigor, self-discovery, human dignity, mutual support, social justice, self-discipline, mental and physical wellness, the appreciation of diversity and the natural world, and the judicious use of resources,” the letter reads. “This is why we stand with students as they lead the way in asking you to address the issue of campus safety and security for all students, especially for the most marginalized students.

Alumni Evid Miller, Class of 2013.

“Please take their concerns and constructive demands seriously.”

Friday’s press packet also included a letter co-written by the executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of West Virginia, Joseph Cohen, and the executive director of Call to Action for Racial Equality, Gabrielle Chapman.

The letter states that both organizations have been contacted by “a number” of concerned Wesleyan students who have raised concerns about racial profiling as well as sexual harassment and harassment related to race and gender identity.

“ACLU-WV and CARE call on WVWC to immediately conduct a thorough investigation into the practices of its security personnel and work with student leaders to address their concerns in a timely manner,” the letter states.

It goes on to say that under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Civil Rights Act of 1866, the college is legally mandated to “ensure that students of color are not subjected to a racially hostile educational environment or targeted by school security on account of their race.”

Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 requires the college to protect students from harassment based on their sex or failure to conform to traditional gender norms, the letter continues.

Our Voice Among the Hills is a student-led organization formed in 2018 when more than 20 college staff and faculty members lost their jobs as part of a reduction in force effort. It’s stated mission is to establish an inclusive environment in which all students can feel safe on campus.

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