Bowdoin College, Brunswick leaders meet about ‘uptick’ in racial slurs

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BRUNSWICK — Incidents in which racial slurs were allegedly shouted at Bowdoin College students and faculty near the school’s campus spurred the college’s president to warn college community and prompted a meeting among college, town and law enforcement officials.

“Over the last few months several members of our community – students, student guests, staff and faculty – all persons of color – have been subjected to racial invectives of the worst kind,” Bowdoin President Clayton Rose wrote in a Sept. 8 email to Bowdoin students, faculty and staff following the meeting. “These incidents have generally involved the ‘n’ word being hurled by people in cars passing near campus and in town. These are cowardly and inexcusable acts.”

The meeting, held on Aug. 27, was attended by Brunswick Town Manager John Eldridge, Town Council Chairwoman Sarah Brayman, council Vice Chairman Steve Walker, Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski, Police Chief Richard Rizzo, police commanders Mark Waltz and Marc Hagan, Cumberland County Assistant District Attorney Michael Madigan, and Debora King of the Brunswick Downtown Association, as well as Rose, Bowdoin College Senior Vice President for Communications and Public Affairs Scott Hood, Senior Vice President for Finance and Administration and Treasurer Katy Longley, Dean of Student Affairs Tim Foster and Randy Nichols, the college’s security director.

The town did not post any public notice about the meeting. It was not mentioned at a council meeting and, according to Brayman, no public discussion or action by the Town Council is planned.

Waltz said Monday that town leaders were asked “to let Bowdoin deal with it themselves first. They wanted the students to hear it from them.”

The meeting was prompted by “an uptick” in reported racial incidents, Brayman said by phone Monday.

College officials “wanted to be clear that the college and the town are united in condemning that type of activity and to discuss the issue generally (and see), is there something that can be done,” Eldridge said. “That’s why we had law enforcement people there and the ADA was there, to talk about what might be done legally.”

College senior Jeffrey Chung, a leader in Bowdoin’s Asian Student Association, said Monday that within his first week back at college this year, racist slurs were shouted at him and an African American friend on two separate occasions while they walked on Maine Street. He said he did not report the incidents and assumes “it must be happening to more people.”

“Racial aggression is always shocking,” said Chung, who grew up in Queens, New York. “Coming from such diversity, and as an Asian male, I don’t see as much direct racism, but in Maine, in a less diverse environment like this, perhaps you’re more prone to experience it.”

Chung was an underclassman in 2013 when college and town officials met following an incident in which racial slurs and language were written on whiteboards in a student housing complex. Bowdoin Student Government subsequently organized No Hate November in 2013 and 2014, with the goal of working toward eliminating bias and increasing mindfulness on campus, The Bowdoin Orient reported.

“They keep track of these things and there had been an uptick several years ago, and we’re seeing it again,” Brayman said. “Obviously we are on heightened alert about this happening and the police are aware this has been going on. Strategies were discussed, including potentially getting the community on board, and having people aware that this is happening so you have more ears out and people can look for license plate numbers. Certainly council leadership was deeply concerned about these issues and now is aware of what happened and open to various approaches, and will work with the college.”

In his letter to the Bowdoin community, Rose wrote that those who attended his meeting in August “asked me to share with you their unequivocal and united condemnation of these acts, a view they know our many wonderful neighbors in Brunswick wholeheartedly support. We agreed that we will work together to shine a light on this behavior, to raise awareness about its effects, and whenever possible, to hold accountable those responsible.”

Waltz said Monday that while no such incidents had been reported to the police department this year, Bowdoin security personnel at the Aug. 27 meeting handed him “a multiple-page printout” of purported acts of racial slurs directed at Bowdoin students and staff. None of them included information that would allow Brunswick police to further investigate, he said.

“Some of this may just be free speech,” he said. “We can’t necessarily stop someone’s car just because they hollered something.”

Bowdoin College provided a copy of Rose’s letter to the Bangor Daily News, but Rose and other college officials declined to comment further on the situation. Chung said Rose met early this school year with leaders of various multicultural groups on campus to introduce himself and discuss needs “and what he could do to help us.”

“President Rose’s academic background in racial relations has shown a shift toward being eager to confront these issues,” Chung said. “I do believe he is personally interested in learning more about how to fix issues of racism. It’s very encouraging.”

While the Town Council has taken no action in response to the concerns raised during the Aug. 27 meeting, “many organizations in town have done outreach,” Brayman said. She suggested “a communitywide response to this. Yes, there’s a role for town government in all this, but I think it should be communitywide.”

“This is something I want to be proactive about,” Brayman continued. “We want all people to be welcome in Brunswick. Brunswick is a welcoming town and we’re aware of and will monitor the situation.”

Students sit on the quad in front of Hubbard Hall at Bowdoin College in Brunswick.