GVSU holds training workshop for bias incident

Erin Grogan

Faculty and staff from Grand Valley State University and Grand Rapids Community College met Tuesday for training on how to handle biased incidents.

Marlene Kowalski-Braun, vice provost for the GVSU Dean of Students office, led the workshop. She said biased incidents are when someone is “belittled, disrespected, threatened or made to feel unsafe,” and such incidents are unwelcome at GVSU. The university encourages its students to file reports of these occasions through an online form provided by the Division of Inclusion and Equity. Students can report incidents anonymously.

The online form allows the university to track biased incidents, which is a useful resource when trying to understand the culture and climate of campus, Kowalski-Braun said.

The university keeps a summary of the information on the Division of Inclusion and Equity’s website, which states that a total of 12 incidents were reported on both the Pew and Allendale campuses in fall 2013.

The summary reports that six of the occasions were in regard to sexual orientation, three were about ethnicity/race, one involved religion, two were gender-related and one regarded mental health. One incident was counted twice, as it was in regards to both gender and sexual orientation.

Eight incidents were reported during the winter 2013 semester and 14 occurred in the fall of 2012.

Kowalski-Braun is a member of the Team Against Bias, which has faculty and student representatives working to educate the GVSU community about biased incidents. The group has been tracking occasions of bias since 2006. In that time, 164 incidents have been reported, and many more may have occurred but not been reported, she said.

“I’m really proud to work in a place that tracks biased incidents so we can say we’re not trying to paint ourselves in a perfect light,” Kowalski-Braun said. “Do I feel good knowing that on 164 accounts people felt like they had a way to voice? Yes, I do.”

Dwight Hamilton is one of the 15 members of the TAB and is assistant vice president for Affirmative Action in the Office of Inclusion and Equity.

“Generally, the university will provide information about supportive resources that are available to the individual affected by the incident,” Hamilton said. “The Biased Incident Protocol, however, does not carry a disciplinary measure or an investigative mechanism. It’s about awareness and education.”

Those involved in creating the protocol want to create an environment within the university that is open to conversation about all issues on campus, he said.

“This sense that for something to be a biased incident it has to reach a certain threshold, that’s simply not true. We’re trying to create a space for dialogue,” Kowalski-Braun said. “The ability to have vigorous debate, to sit with dissonance, to disagree, those are all things that have to be present in higher education.”

She added that the type of action that follows each biased incident is dependent on the reporting student’s wishes. The student may need someone to talk to or they may want to get the incident on an official’s radar. In some cases, they want to sit down to talk to the other student involved.

“That student doesn’t have to come, though they largely do,” she said. “I’ve had some good conversations with students about where they’re coming from.”

If a biased incident escalates from speech into behavior, such as blocking a student’s path to class or physically threatening a student, Kowalski-Braun said punitive actions might be required, though at that point it is out of the TAB’s hands, and security personnel often take over. If there is a case of multiple people reporting a single incident, it has most likely escalated into behavior.

“Through the Team Against Bias, we support the ‘Speak Up’ campaign, which empowers students who wish to address incidents of bias that they witness, when those incidents occur,” Hamilton said. “Ultimately, our students have ownership of their community.”

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