Shwetha Srinivasan: GW needs a bias assessment and response team

Everyone deserves the right to feel safe. But unfortunately, over the last year, there’s been a rise in racial hate crimes against Muslims, following the terrorist attacks in Paris and San Bernardino, Calif.

Although there haven’t been any violent, racially motivated hate crimes reported on GW’s campus in recent memory, we know that prejudice against Muslims and minorities exists here, and everywhere. As an international student, I’m concerned about the national rise in bias and discrimination against minorities.

There have been quite a few scary incidents on campus recently. On two separate occasions last year, swastikas were drawn on-campus. Just last semester, a White Student Union group emerged on Facebook. And some students have even noticed graffiti of racial slurs around campus. But racial and ethnic bias isn’t the only issue – last fall, two GW students were attacked because of their sexuality.

Officials have spoken out about racism in the past, but considering the rise in incidents of prejudice and hate crimes against specific communities, the University should do more. Officials must address how they can help students facing prejudice, and that should start with creating an online reporting system and implementing a bias response team.

Currently, students can report bias or discrimination to staff in the Multicultural Student Services Center, Disability Support Services, their residence halls, the Division of Student Affairs or the Colonial Health Center, University spokesman Kurtis Hiatt said in an email. Students can also use the CARE network, or talk to their professors or coaches, he said.

While all of these resources are equipped to handle incidents of bias, they aren’t necessarily staffed by people who deal exclusively with prejudice and discrimination every day. And they don’t afford students the option to report confidentially, which could scare some of them away.

GW’s system leaves a lot to be desired. Right now, GW just has a single crime reporting form to report all kinds of crimes on campus. It doesn’t have any reporting system solely for bias or discrimination incidents, nor does it include a way to report online. But adding a bias assessment and response team, along with a method of online reporting, would help the University to target prejudice on campus.

Meraj Allahrakha, a chaplain and community adviser of the GW Muslim Student Association, said “at minimum,” a bias response team could collect statistics on bias or hate trends on campus.

“I know other large universities have implemented teams such as this but it is often in response to tragic rises in certain types of underreported bias,” Allahrakha said in an email. “I think we have a proactive opportunity at GW to do something forward looking for our students without an underlying national news story.”

These bias response teams are often made up of students and university officials who are trained to not only handle incidents of bias or hate crimes, but also promote a safer environment on campus. They also offer suggestions – like expanding the number of offices focused on diversity – that the school can implement to ensure that campus is a safe place for all students.

“We value student input in discussing ways in which we can continue to ensure our campuses reflect and embrace a rich diversity of students, faculty and staff who are treated equitably,” Hiatt said.

It’s encouraging that the University is open to suggestions, and a method of confidential reporting through a bias response team should be one of its priorities. Importantly, online reporting makes it easier and less stressful for students to report incidents. It also gives schools the ability to more easily identify trends, and recognize what the biggest problems are on campus.

The University could easily create a bias response team by integrating it into the University Police Department’s Threat Assessment team – an existing group that evaluates whether individuals’ behaviors could be dangerous to themselves or others. Through that team, students can currently report actions of others that make them feel unsafe. Creating a separate bias response team within UPD would require more training, but it would be worth it to have experts who know how to best help students.

Schools like the University of Iowa and Ohio State and Harvard universities also have bias assessment and response teams. As a part of its system, Ohio State University also has other bias response tools – like the Open Doors Ally Building and Anti-Bias Program – in addition to a web site for reporting bias online.

Students know best what’s going on on campus, and hopefully, the University would take their suggestions seriously. GW is made up of domestic and international students of various ethnicities, races and sexual orientations – so providing a safe environment for all of them should be a priority.

“What we don’t need to be doing as a community and as an institution of higher learning is making it harder for students to be or find themselves,” Allahrakha said.

The student community has to be proactive in understanding and preventing these incidents. But officials can make the process more effective by providing tools for the student community and victims of prejudice to make our campus more tolerant and inclusive.

Shwetha Srinivasan, a sophomore double-majoring in international affairs and economics, is a Hatchet opinions writer. Want to respond to this piece? Submit a letter to the editor.

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