BRUNSWICK, Maine — Eight months after an “uptick” of racial slurs directed at Bowdoin College students prompted Brunswick officials to convene a Human Rights Task Force, the group is prepared to report that there’s still much to be done to combat bias in town.
The task force is scheduled to present its findings to town councilors on Monday — exactly one week before students return to the Bowdoin campus.
Although the group has not generated a specific action plan, Sarah Brayman, the Town Council chairwoman and a member of the task force, said that meetings with various community groups and the college have been productive.
After reports during the past two years that racial and gender slurs had become “a more persistent problem” near the campus, Bowdoin President Clayton Rose — who studied issues of race in America while obtaining his Ph.D. at the University of Pennsylvania — made addressing such incidents a priority during his first year.
Before classes had begun last fall, Rose and other college leaders met privately with town officials to discuss the incidents. Just days into the fall semester, he penned a memo to students condemning “racial invectives of the worst kind” that had been directed at “students, student guests, faculty and staff — all persons of color” by people in cars passing near the campus and elsewhere in town.
Rose also hired an outside consulting group to study the experiences of students of color on campus.
After reports in November and December 2015 that one student was sexually assaulted in college housing adjacent to campus and two others grabbed on nearby streets, town officials held a “round table” with representatives of other organizations in town to address what Brayman said at the time was unacceptable behavior.
“It’s just gotten worse — it’s gotten nastier,” Brayman said in December. “This is unacceptable behavior, and I’m not going to turn away from this. I want people to feel welcome in Brunswick.”
Later that month, the council appointed three councilors, including Brayman, to a task force but expanded its mission to investigate bias against all groups protected by the Maine Human Rights Act.
At six meetings held between January and June, the task force — which also includes councilors Kathy Wilson and Jane Millett — heard from representatives of organizations such as People Plus and Maine State Music Theatre, leaders of local churches, Brunswick Police Chief Richard Rizzo, Superintendent of Schools Paul Perzanoski and Leana Amaez, Bowdoin’s dean of multicultural affairs.
They learned that a new link on the Brunswick Police Department’s website that allows anonymous reporting of bias incidents had received three reports, including one in November 2015 by a 20-year-old Asian woman — a student at Bowdoin — who reported that a truck pulled up behind her as she walked along Park Row near campus, and the occupants yelled at her, “Do you have any spring rolls?” and “I love Thai food.”
The woman told police she was afraid they would continue to follow her and harm her.
They learned that a 20-year-old Bowdoin student reported that in May, as he walked near Federal Street and Bath Road, someone in a passing car yelled racial and homophobic slurs at him.
Rizzo told the task force that those who report such incidents are seldom available to provide specific descriptions of the suspects or license plate numbers, which makes investigations more difficult.
At another meeting, Perzanoski suggested establishing “safe houses” where victims of bias could stay until authorities arrive. According to meeting minutes, Perzanoski said doing so would “send a message to the community” that bias and discrimination would not be tolerated.
The Rev. Mary Baard told the task force of a racial justice group formed in the past year at First Parish Church. Baard wondered at that same meeting whether racial and gender slurs directed at Bowdoin students reflected “a class issue, where the appearance of privilege at an expensive private college creates jealousy and anger among people with little economic opportunity,” according to the minutes.
Amaez told the task force in February that the college was finalizing a separate bias incident policy. According to minutes, she also said the college was discussing an anonymous reporting model for bias incidents and having consultants meet with students on campus “to discuss the racial climate.”
Amaez also scheduled a March 4 meeting of college students and town councilors to discuss their experiences of bias in Brunswick, and offered to act as moderator, according to minutes. But the meeting was postponed, and then canceled altogether.
Jeffrey Chung, who graduated in May from Bowdoin, said in an email to the Bangor Daily News that students were told the meeting was initially postponed until after spring break “to allow for a reprieve after racial tensions reached a particularly high point on campus,” and was never rescheduled.
Bowdoin officials have declined twice in recent weeks to comment on the task force, and college spokesman Doug Cook said Amaez, who attended three of the task force’s six meetings, was unavailable to speak to the BDN.
Brayman said Monday that she hopes councilors will get that opportunity to meet with Bowdoin students to hear about their experiences firsthand. She also hopes a community organization will offer to lead the task force forward. Regardless, she said she, Millett and Wilson would like to continue their work.
“It’s been a very educational and productive process,” she said. “I think we could use a little more time to continue discussions and build on what we’ve started.”