SHERIDAN — Sheridan College officials announced plans to emphasize diversity and inclusion on campus after Native American students became targets of racial discrimination earlier this fall.
Thursday, Sheridan College President Paul Young said the identity of the person or persons who wrote racial slurs on the students’ whiteboard is still unknown and the investigation continues with support from the Sheridan Police Department, Wyoming Highway Patrol and FBI.
The college won’t wait for a culprit, though.
College staff plan to increase security measures, create a multicultural center on campus, increase funding for and discussions about equity and inclusion, create a committee to spearhead an annual plan to increase cultural competence, work with the Department of Justice to train the campus police and crisis management team and meet with tribal leaders in the state and region.
“We believe it is important for this college to strongly and firmly state our commitment to inclusion and to developing an aggressive plan for improving the campus climate for Native American students and for all our underrepresented students,” Young said.
Young will meet Nov. 27 with tribal leaders from the Wind River Reservation. Otherwise, most of the plans will begin in January. The multicultural center will be a physical space in an existing campus building and Young said he wants to have it in place by next fall.
“Staffing is a little bit more of a challenge, because that’s going to take some money, but we’ll see,” he said.
Young noted that higher education in the U.S. has included barriers to access since its inception, when only white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant males could further pursue their studies. Those barriers have slowly become less restrictive, allowing women and racial minorities access to education, but not without challenges.
He cited other examples of hate speech at colleges across the country, including recent anti-Semitic flyers at the University of Wyoming. He said the college faces a challenge common across the country, but has a unique opportunity to improve. Scholarships and other financial aid for underrepresented students are also a possibility.
Young emphasized, however, that the announcements are not meant to deter students from exercising their First Amendment rights.
“We embrace free speech,” Young said. “We are not looking to be politically correct, but speech that is meant to threaten, intimidate or tell someone for any reason that they don’t belong here, is not OK and has no place in a college or university.”
Joseph Aguirre, college success program director, said the college will intensify its services for underrepresented students. That includes automatic enrollment into programs that provide individual mentoring, academic and financial support. Sheridan College will also increase efforts to form a stronger relationship with the St. Labre Indian School in Ashland, Montana, so its students are better prepared to enter college.
In addition, Leah Barrett, vice president of student affairs, said more diverse visual images and Native American symbols will appear on campus. The college will also host more writers and speakers of different backgrounds.
Lynelle Shakespeare said the steps are a good start but the college has to follow through. Shakespeare is the mother of Whisper SunRhodes, one of the students targeted in September. Shakespeare lives on the Wind River Reservation but said she would make the trip to Sheridan as often as it takes to make sure her daughter feels comfortable.
Young also expressed his dedication to ensuring student safety, stating that he constantly thinks about Shakespeare’s question to him after the initial incident: Can you ensure my daughter’s safety?
Young hopes the plans outlined Thursday will be a step in the right direction.