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Students seek healing while community takes sides

by Amy Kingsley

Students and faculty at Guilford College repaired early to their homes on Feb. 1 after campus administrators called off afternoon classes due to winter weather.

That left the campus nearly deserted, except for a group of students celebrating their unexpected vacation with a snowball fight.

The picture of students playing as the snow turned to sleet would have been utterly normal if it weren’t for the protest signs hanging raggedly on the doors. They reminded onlookers that for past week and a half – ever since three Palestinians and several football players tangled on Jan. 20 – “normal” has not been an adjective applicable to life at this small liberal arts college.

Since then Guilford College, a campus founded by members of the pacifist Religious Society of Friends, has been subject to scrutiny not only by national and local media but also has been, in essence, putting itself under the microscope. Students and faculty have been on a rampage of self-examination and the weather, it seems, came just in time.

“I think people needed the snow day,” said Max Carter, director of the Friends Center. “People are pretty wrung out emotionally.”

After word broke in January that the three Palestinians suffered concussions, and that the football players had used brass knuckles and ethnic slurs, some students donned red armbands, confronted administrators and staged protests. A group called Students for Justice decried what they described as institutional racism and some of Guilford’s student athletes responded with complaints of a rush to judgment. But things calmed down last week on this campus of 2,600 as students took small steps toward reconciliation.

Leonard Lawson, a student who organized a forum on Jan. 31, said students have taken it upon themselves to say hi to athletes, students of color and members of cliques outside their own. Faculty and students planned teach-ins about conflict resolution to head off potential future incidents.

Off campus, on the other hand, the issue has been increasingly politicized. Members of the Greensboro Truth and Reconciliation Project announced a meeting to root out the underlying causes of the alleged hate crime. Some bloggers skeptical of the Palestinians’ claims chided the group for assuming the act was a hate crime before all the facts were known.

“We will be all watching with interest as the investigation unfolds,” Greensboro doctor Joe Guarino wrote on his blog. “Some of us, however, will have difficulty mustering additional outrage on the basis that the incident has been portrayed as a hate crime, and that it is being covered very prominently in accordance with that portrayal.”

When Greensboro Police ended their investigation of the matter, at least one blogger gloated – perhaps prematurely, considering the ethnic intimidation and assault charges are still pending against six students.

In his blog, Off the Record, News & Record editorial writer Doug Clark has been among the most ardent skeptics of the hate crime designation.

“Early allegations of an attack by 15 football players against three Palestinians were likely false. Or, at least, police didn’t find any reason to believe they were true,” Clark wrote.

Assistant District Attorney Howard Neumann has, for his part, announced that his office will wait until Guilford College’s judicial process is complete to proceed with the criminal case.

Thus the circle has been drawn around Guilford College. The college will get the first, and perhaps the definitive, opportunity to assess what happened that night.

“People are waiting to see what happens,” Carter said. “Given Guilford College’s historical creativity, we hope that some reconciling creative process will come out of this. We hope that maybe we can become an example to the world.”

Guilford alumni are one of the groups most interested in the case’s outcome. Several former students in Greensboro and elsewhere have called or written to Guilford College about the incident. Liz Nimitz, who graduated in 2005, said she has struggled with her impulse to be involved with the campus.

“I feel in a really weird position right now,” she said. “When I was a student I was really involved with what was going on on campus. But I’m not a student there anymore and it wouldn’t be appropriate for me to assume that position.”

At a dinner party with friends the week after the fight, Nimitz and her friends, many of whom also attended Guilford, talked about it for hours.

“We sat at the table long after dinner just talking about it,” she said.

Nimitz, Carter and Lawson said the students’ initial outrage has moderated into something more nuanced and even unsure.

“There’s so much gray area to this,” Nimitz said. “People just don’t know what to think about it, and that’s kind of causing people to freak out.”

Nimitz said she supports the college’s efforts to get the truth.

“I think that they are trying to do a really good job,” she said. “I can see the importance of not rushing through a process like this. But they need to give students solid information.”

Nic Brown, a college spokesman, said the school has brought charges against five students.

“Guilford College charges are very different than those of the police,” Brown said. “They usually include everyone who was involved.”

Guilford College officials are not releasing the names of those charged in their proceedings. Two of the alleged victims attend Guilford College; the third, Omar Awartani, attends NC State University and is not subject to Guilford College’s judicial process. Brown said the college did not plan to charge any more students, even though six football players now have pending legal charges.

Carter said students and other members of the campus community are relieved the incident is fading from public view.

“People have to get back to their lives,” he said. “After two weeks of almost constant thinking about it, it’s exhausting.”

The college should conclude its hearings by middle to late February, Brown said.

“Our priority is to get this thing right,” he said, “not to get it quickly.”

To Carter, getting it right will require fealty to the institution’s core Quaker values.

“The Quaker practice requires calm,” he said, “it requires patience and it requires a place where we can hear all voices. I think doing this on campus will be far more constructive than trying it in the public or in the press.”

Nimitz said she does not want the college sweep the incident under the rug.

“If this is a hate crime,” she said, “it’s really important that Guilford take this really seriously. I hope all of the people handling it are aware of the importance of this.”

She said in her experience as a campus organizer, she has heard college administrators make overtures about bridging divides between the races and between athletes and non-athletes on campus.

“When I heard Kent Chabotar talking about this,” Nimitz said, “it brought tears to my eyes because I was so sure I had heard it before.”

Precipitation washed away most of a statement that had been scrawled in chalk across a brick walkway. Vestiges of the words “Only the Truth is Revolutionary” remained on the path near the snowball fight. A few poster board signs erected in protest in and around Founder Hall were torn at the edges but otherwise untouched.

“I think people believe in the core values,” Carter said. “What uncertainty you see is related to whether we will live up to those core values.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Amy Kingsley at amy@yesweekly.com

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