The University Police Department (UPD) is investigating what SUNY New Paltz President Donald Christian called a “condemnable posting of racially offensive material in a campus residence hall” found on the evening of Friday, Oct. 18.
According to both University Police Chief David Dugatkin and Student Association (SA) Vice President of Academic Affairs Jordan Taylor, a student discovered the message “Emmett Till deserved to die” on a whiteboard in Dubois Hall. The student then took a picture and uploaded it to Facebook.
Associate Professor of Black Studies Karanja Carroll said he saw the uploaded image that same night and he, along with university students, urged the student to report the incident to the police. Carroll said he then alerted President Christian of the situation Sunday morning, and Christian informed Carroll that same day that he had alerted Dugatkin of the situation.
An official investigation began Monday morning. Dugatkin said as of press time, there was nothing new to report.
“Right now, we do not have any suspects,” Dugatkin said. “We have conducted several interviews and are still in the investigatory stage.”
An email from Dugatkin was sent out to the campus community at 1:02 p.m. the Tuesday after the incident. The email encouraged people to come forward with any information, but discouraged the use of social media to bring the incident to light.
“Unfortunately, this most recent incident was first discovered and posted on social media, and we were informed about it indirectly roughly 36 hours later, hindering our investigation,” Dugatkin wrote in the email.
SA Executive Vice President Zachary Rousseas said while he was happy there was a response from UPD, he was unhappy with the response given.
“I thought his [Dugatkin’s] response was offensive,” Rousseas said. “It indirectly implied the student who published it on Facebook impeded the investigation and I find that so inappropriate.”
SA President Manuel Tejada said he believed that had the sign not been posted on social media, “there would have been less of a reaction” from the campus community.
Student Senator Osato Okundaye said he views the campus as less of a safe space after the incident.
“To me, this sounds like a threat,” Okundaye said. “I truly fear for safety. It isn’t just a social issue, it’s a safety issue.”
The “racially offensive” sign found in Dubois Hall is one of several of its kind found on campus since 2011. The first “racially offensive” sign was found on Nov. 8, 2011 in the Humanities building, when a “colored only” sticker was placed over a water fountain. Two days after the first sign was discovered, a sign that said “lynch niggers”* was found in Lefevre Hall. This past March, the Shango Parking sign was vandalized to say “Django Parking.”
Tejada said the story of Emmett Till — in which a 14-year-old black male was kidnapped, tortured and murdered by two white men in Mississippi in 1955 for allegedly wolf whistling at a white woman — and the reference to that crime in recent signage “reminds us of a time where racism was dealt through extreme violence.”
He also said that while he did not know the motivation behind the most recent “racially offensive sign,” it is farther reaching than just SUNY New Paltz.
“It also affects people from the past and people from that time,” Tejada said. “Elder generations see this and they don’t see it as a joke because it is not a joke.”
On Tuesday evening, SA Senate Chair and Black Student Union (BSU) Historian Carissa Moore said students came together to discuss what they could do to try and prevent this from happening in the future and to encourage students to tell Christian how they feel about the sign.
“We’re tired,” Moore said. “We’re tired of the threats toward us and we want this to stop happening.”
Christian sent out an email Wednesday at 3:08 p.m. addressing the incident. He said in the email he was “disappointed” to hear suggestions that “administrators and UPD do not take these or other incidents seriously.”
“Nothing could be further from the truth,” he said. “…We are investigating this most recent incident as fully and as aggressively as possible with the aim of identifying the person(s) responsible and pursuing appropriate judicial or legal action.”
Taylor said he was happy to see a response from the president addressing the concerns of the students.
“I am glad he is seeing the students’ concerns about this and that action is being taken,” he said. “It’s better to have any acknowledgment than no acknowledgment at all.”
Director of Residence Life Corinna Caracci said the Resident Director and Resident Assistant staff in Dubois have already hosted discussions to address the severity and implications of the “racially offensive” sign.
She also said she was “hurt” students accused administrators, UPD and residence life of not caring about the students.
“We acted right away and I think it’s hurtful if people think we wouldn’t want to address anything,” Caracci said.
Dugatkin and Caracci both said the student who discovered and uploaded an image of the message to Facebook should have contacted UPD before posting the image on social media. Senator Dana Hershkowitz, however, said people should be open to the idea that students may be unwilling to address UPD and administration due to past experiences.
“Maybe the student didn’t want to report it because we have seen things reported to UPD, and UPD doesn’t get involved,” Hershkowitz said. “And maybe the student turned to social media first because if it’s on social media and people engage, it cannot be swept under the rug.”
Carroll also said the initial reaction of the student to post the sign on Facebook speaks to a historical relationship between students of color and UPD.
“Students who brought this up should not be penalized, as they are acting directly from their lived experiences,” Carroll said. “If you do not automatically trust the law, you do not go to the law.”
At Wednesday’s senate meeting, the SA E-board and present senators discussed what the school can do to try and prevent these incidents from reoccuring. SA and the University will host the “Let’s Talk About…” forum on Saturday, Nov. 16, which will help to try and educate students on issues surrounding race, gender and identity. However, several senators said hosting one optional forum will do little to help.
“The people who come to these forums are people who already know how serious these issues are,” Senator Matt Gill said. “What we need to do is find a way to get students who aren’t as educated and informed on these issues to come and take part.”
Carroll said the issue needs to be addressed on student, faculty and administrative fronts if the campus hopes to see change and progress for the furture.
“Students need to figure out how they are going to organize and respond because this is where they live, while the administration needs to acknowledge when these things happen,” Carroll said. “All faculty at this institution need to be informed of the issues and know how to engage the issues in their classroom. If we as faculty don’t engage it is problematic. We are supposed to be nurturing critical thinking.”
Rousseas said within the next few weeks, he hopes administrators and UPD will focus on improving campus safety for students who may feel uncomfortable by the events of the past few years.
“Students of color deserve to know this school is not always a safe place for them,” he said.
Additional reporting done by Suzy Berkowitz, John Tappen and Roberto Lobianco.
* Editor’s Note: The New Paltz Oracle does not condone use of this derogatory language. In accordance with Associated Press Style, this word was printed because it was “essential to the story” in that it provided facts related to the incidents described in the article.