The Spartan’s Dilemma: The BLM Flag, Hate Speech, and Castleton’s Student Journalists
Editor’s Note: This is the fourth story in an invitation-only series exploring the complex and varied experiences surrounding the BLM flag in Vermont school communities. The first installment in the series offered an overview of this year’s debate and the H.92 flag bill; Second Prof. Noel Riby-Williams, who led the effort to raise the BLM flag at Montpelier High School; the third explored the disruption of civil discourse in the Mill River school community. The Underground Workshop is an open platform for student journalism from across Vermont. For more information, please contact Ben Heintz, workshop editor, at [emailÂ protected]
by Josie Gawrys, Castleton University
In the summer of 2020, Castleton University senior Raynolds Awusi was invited by his mentor, Raphael Okutoro, to participate in a study on racial discrimination on campus.
He volunteered, wanting to share his story. As his classmates spoke, he realized that they shared the same experiences he faced.
Two students told stories of incidents at parties. The two were bumped into and then called the N word by white college students. Awusi once described, during a football game, when a white student called him âF – king n ââ râ.
“It’s just, what, five or six people in a room?” Said Awusi. “So what does the rest of Castleton have to say?”
After George Floyd’s death, Awusi felt a call to action. He joined the Castleton Student Government Association and offered to raise a Black Lives Matter flag. Acting President Jonathan Spiro and the student government approved.
Castleton’s student newspaper, the Spartan, picked up the story. The semester had already been difficult for the newspaper, following a stabbing in early fall. The events triggered by Awusi would create a difficult decision for Spartan editors and for Awusi himself.
In October 2020, Awusi hosted a Black Lives Matter flag raising ceremony. He said he planned the event almost entirely on his own, with the administration’s approval but without their help.
âI felt isolated,â Awusi said. âI felt I had to go through it all on my own.
It seemed to Awusi that the school didn’t want the faculty involved. He said a faculty member personally told him the flag would be “too controversial.”
But he stuck to it, and plans for the ceremony were finalized for October 11, 2020. He sent an email inviting the student body and faculty to attend. In October, when only about 300 students lived on campus, 50 attended, both from campus and from the community.
When Awusi emailed the student body about the flag raising, it received only one response, containing hate speech.
âI just wanted to let you know that it’s disgusting to raise a Black Lives Matter flag. You realize Black Lives Matter killed a cop. And destroy this country. You are a delusional idiot, âthe student wrote.
âIt’s a university built on the backs of the men and women who fought for this country and Black Lives Matter is destroying it. Maybe it would have been better if we chose our own cotton [sic]. So we wouldn’t have stupid bullshit like you.
When Awusi read this, he was not surprised. In fact, he expected it.
âI didn’t think it was really a big deal,â Awusi said, âbecause it’s something that happens here all the time.â
Awusi responded to the email, and after a second exchange, the other student finished with, “Oh, what’s no answer to that ??? This is true p-sy. Awusi has decided not to answer any more.
Awusi said many people at Castleton don’t realize such things are happening because there is usually no paper trail. He saw the email as an opportunity to show the community that racism exists in Castleton.
âMaybe this time people will wake up and be like, ‘Yeah, we’ve got a problem here, and we should probably try to fix it,’â he said.
Awusi shared a screenshot of the email to her Instagram Story. Other students began to share screenshots of their stories. One student who saw the screenshot online was Aris Sherwood, editor of the school’s student newspaper, the Castleton Spartan. She informed the editorial staff of the incident and they quickly started planning an article.
In the following days, they worked to publish a story about the incident. The editors decided it was important that the student who sent the email to Awusi be given an opportunity to comment. They weren’t sure if the student would respond, but thought âit couldn’t hurt to tryâ.
This reporter emailed the student and got a quick response.
âI have a few things to say about this,â he wrote. âI was offline in the first email. Yes, black lives matter. I support a flag that says so. But I don’t support the organization that is destroying the streets of Portland. “
âThat was the meaning of my original email,â he wrote. “Don’t sound like a racist whose email has been brought up.”
There were rumors – and photo confirmation – that the door to the student’s dormitory had a boot on the doorknob, meaning it had been locked by the school. The Spartan contacted Castleton’s administration for comment, but received none.
The Spartan contacted the student again. The student declined to answer any further questions, but sent a final email: “My second statement is that alcohol did it.”
As the story wrapped up, the student editors struck up a conversation about whether to include the student’s name in their story.
After a debate on the text, professor and journalism advisor Dave Blow suggested holding a Zoom meeting for editors to discuss the story.
This led to several meetings in a matter of days. In each Zoom meeting, they reviewed changes, worked on a decision, and aimed for a final draft. With an incident like this, publishers were under pressure to make the right choice.
Student editors Brendan Crowley and Aris Sherwood initially disagreed on the student’s appointment. Blow largely stayed out of the discussion and encouraged the students to make a decision.
âI automatically thought, ‘No, I don’t think that’s a good idea,'” Sherwood said, “But Brendan and Dave were like, as reporters and from a journalistic point of view, that would be. a good idea to do, because it’s interesting. ”
As editor, Crowley had the final say, but wanted the editors to come to an agreement together.
âWhen something like that comes out, especially on the spot, we have to make sure we cover it properly, to make sure we’re not doing anything unethical,â he said.
He pointed out in the meetings that since the student responded to the email, he was allowed to put his name in the journal. Ethically it is allowed, he said, and Blow agreed.
Crowley reminded the team that people want details when reading a story – they don’t want to feel like information is being left out.
But Sherwood noted that most people who read the story would have known it by word of mouth by now, and if they really wanted to know, they could find out elsewhere. She argued that putting the name in the newspaper could make the situation worse.
In Zoom’s final meeting, the student editors met once again to review the final version of the article and make a final decision on the name. Sherwood said she “felt in her gut” that naming the student was wrong. Crowley insisted that because the student had agreed to an interview, it included consent to appoint him. If there was a backlash, publishers could handle it.
But Sherwood wasn’t worried about the editors – she worried about Awusi.
âI cared a lot more about the safety of Ray, and any other black student on campus, than being a good reporter,â Sherwood said.
Eventually, the reporter suggested that they ask Awusi if he wanted the student named. The editors agreed to this and asked Awusi for his thoughts.
âI didn’t want his name leaked because I know he was clearly uneducated and needed help,â Awusi said.
In the end, it was Awusi’s choice to leave the unnamed student in the story.
In February, to celebrate Black History Month and to bring race discussions to the forefront in Castleton, former Rutland NAACP Chapter President Tabitha Moore traveled to Castleton for a virtual conversation.
Dean of Students Dennis Proulx spoke about those working for change at Castleton. Moore and Awusi were both noticed.
âWhat they’re trying to help us with will help this continued evolution, but boy do we have challenges,â Proulx said.
After the flag was raised, two faculty members contacted Awusi about the launch of a chapter led by NAACP students in Castleton. He is now president and founding member.
Awusi believes the school is taking the necessary steps to improve. He works closely with Public Safety, the school administration and with the Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee to work on a better campus.
âI definitely have a positive outlook on the future,â Awusi said, âand I feel like there are a lot of great people at school who want to do the right thing.
But six months after the flag was raised, Awusi said the school climate still needed to be improved.
âI don’t really think there has been a significant change, I haven’t heard of this change,â he said. âI think it’s still a work in progress. There are things happening today that we would have thought would have been resolved or fixed by now.
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