COLUMN: Zero patience left for MU's flimsy 'zero-tolerance' policy

Friday, February 18, 2011 | 2:02 p.m. CST; updated 1:46 p.m. CST, Saturday, February 19, 2011

I want to thank the people who are advocating for mandatory diversity classes at MU. As your peer and fellow Tiger, you have my full support, and I hope this is a change we see in the near future.

I also want to thank the leaders of the Legion of Black Collegians, the Columbia branch of the NAACP and everyone else who was offended by what our fellow students have done. There are many who chose to be calm and composed in the face of these infuriating acts of ignorance.

The immediate response from students painting signs that say "one love" and "peace," instead of displaying anger and hatred, is truly inspiring.

I just wish I could feel the same way.

The latest race-related vandalism at MU has convinced me it's going to take a lot more than diversity classes to fix MU's crumbling reputation of "zero tolerance" for hate crimes.

Like many students, I was angry, appalled and embarrassed by the barbaric use of symbolic speech last February when cotton balls were scattered in front of the Gaines/Oldham Black Culture Center.

After Zachary Tucker and Sean Fitzgerald were arrested and charged with the crime, I experienced a range of emotions while the university and the legal system decided what to do with them.

At first, I was relieved when they were apprehended, and I was hungry for justice. I believed they should have been prosecuted to the utmost of the law's ability. Expulsion, fines, hate-crime charges — throw the book at them.

Heck, if they were sentenced to wear the letter R made from cotton balls on their shirts for the rest of their lives, I would not have batted an eye.

After some time, I calmed down a bit, and, as a result, I softened. As I thought about it, I made an effort to put my emotions aside and look at the situation more objectively. I tried to put myself in the shoes of their parents, friends or siblings.

Maybe, I reasoned, just maybe, those two kids (and I use the word purposely) really did just get blackout drunk and made an incredibly unfortunate decision.

Maybe they didn't mean to send a deeply condescending message to our school's black population. The fact that it was on the Black Culture Center's lawn and happened during Black History Month could have been a terrible coincidence.

I even went so far as to feel a little sympathy for the guys. If they were expelled and charged with a hate crime — and I was sure they would be — it could effectively ruin their lives.

How far could they go in a career before their criminal records would hold them back? Could they pursue a long-term relationship without disclosing this part of their past?

I guess the university softened, too. Apparently, MU decided 80 hours of community service and a laughable "littering" charge did a sufficient job of reflecting its "zero-tolerance" policy.

But alas, another February and another hate crime.

This time, student Benjamin Elliott admitted he spray-painted a direct insult about Black History Month outside Hatch Hall.

Again, alcohol was cited as the accomplice.

Again, the administration sent a mass e-mail apologizing and promising the "zero-tolerance" policy would patch everything up.

I'll believe it when I see it.

If anything, the recent incident has only proved last year's application of the "zero-tolerance" policy is just as responsible for the painted slur as the guy holding the spray paint.

Last year, MU chose to protect two warped, thoughtless students rather than speak up for the thousands of students who were offended and targeted by what has become universally known as "the cotton-ball incident."

I hate to be the "what iffer," but I can't help wondering whether I would be writing this column today if the vandals had been slapped last year with a "zero-tolerance" policy.

Enough is enough. The university has no choice but to treat this recent act of racism as a prelude to what I fear may become an annual event.

If the first instance hadn't taught me a few lessons, the softer part of me might hold onto the possibility that Elliott isn't as monstrous as his admitted drunken actions make him out to be.

But why risk it? MU can't afford to take that chance again.

It's no secret MU lacks diversity. In this area, I think mandatory classes would be quite eye-opening to a lot of incoming and continuing students.

I think it would be even more meaningful if these classes could cite the outcome of the recent incident as an example of the real, hard consequences of such crimes. I can only hope to see these classes materialize before I leave MU.

For the record, I was reporting for the Missourian at the time of the "cotton ball incident," but I didn't cover the story. I am still at the Missourian and I am not covering the recent incident either.

Right now, I am writing this column about how I feel as a student at MU.

Call me an idealist, but I still have an expectation MU administrators will begin to do a better job of upholding the reputations of the best of us — not the worst.

Anne Christnovich is a senior at MU and currently reports for the Missourian's public safety beat.

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Ellis Smith February 18, 2011 | 4:12 p.m.

Unless or until similar racist acts happen at UMKC. UMSL or MS&T one would hope the proposed addition of "sensitivity training" is confined to MU. If it ain't broke, don't fix it. [Old Phelps County Missouri proverb.]

Some of us are beginning to wonder whether our "flagship campus" has suffered a broken rudder.

(Report Comment)
Mike Martin February 18, 2011 | 5:28 p.m.

It may well be too little, too late to offer diversity training classes by the time a person is in college. If they haven't a sense of right and wrong by that time, or enough of an inkling of social justice not to paper the world with racial slurs, they shouldn't be in college.

A better solution is to deal with these issues at home plate, when kids are small and their sense of right and wrong is under construction.

At the educational level, I don't think it has to be diversity training per se, either. That concept sounds a lot like the historical paternalism -- well-meaning but ultimately stagnating -- that has done more harm than good to minority communities around the nation, and certainly in Columbia.

A better learning route may be acknowledging the many contributions of minority communities to the American experience, and not just at the civil rights level, where all too often the learning stops.

Black Americans, for instance, have a legacy of accomplishment that goes well beyond civil rights, in science, law, the arts, journalism, and especially, education.

They also have a unique set of formative historical experiences -- from slavery and Jim Crow to the Harlem Renaissance and segregation.

Learning about legacies like this can be a powerful and lasting means to build a foundation of respect.

I think the jury is still out, however, on how well traditional diversity training marshals the power of history in the understanding of our people.

(Report Comment)
Eric Cox February 18, 2011 | 6:23 p.m.

I have refrained from commenting on this topic to this point because it is stupid. Out of all the incoming freshman 1 exposed himself publicly as a racist I don't know how many freshman there are but that's obviously a fraction of a percent. So requiring the entire incoming class into diversity training for a issue that statistically is a problem for about 1/10 of 1% seems like reactionary overkill in a time when actual degreed programs are being cut.

Add to that all the research that shows the brain of an 18 year old is not fully developed, and I begin to wonder why society puts so much emphasis and the actions of such a person. Racism is stupid, but people have always been free to be stupid. So yes this "kid" exposed his stupidity by spray painting offensive comments. I have to agree that's vandalism and should not be a felony.

Personally I work for a large business and am required to take diversity training every 2 years, I don't judge people on race, nor did I before I took the training. Diversity training won't change a person, I may feel Scientology is a freaky cult, I just know better than to talk about it at work.

(Report Comment)
Greg Allen February 19, 2011 | 7:52 a.m.

We all know that under the influence things are said that wouldn't dare be said sober. It reflects something that someone believes. It's not mere stupidity.

Incidents like this reflect that, although we have made tremendous strides in civil rights, the attitude of superiority without a rational basis still exists. It touches a sensitive nerve.

We can legislate slavery away. It's harder to change people's attitudes.

(Report Comment)
Delcia Crockett February 19, 2011 | 8:22 a.m.

Excerpt from article:
"I hate to be the "what iffer," but I can't help wondering whether I would be writing this column today if the vandals had been slapped last year with a "zero-tolerance" policy.
Enough is enough. The university has no choice but to treat this recent act of racism as a prelude to what I fear may become an annual event."

My response:
That's it. You've got it! Then, next time, someone thinks of vandalizing university property with slogans -yea, though it attempted to be rationalized away by "the booze made me do it" - they will know what hangs in the balance of their act. In other words, will they want to give up MU for an instance of impulsive, irrational behavior? They make the choice to vandalize property - they lose the privilege to use the property. MU is their education landlord, and they are only renting the property for their educational use, so to speak. Any other landlord would evict, and bar from property.

(Report Comment)
Gregory Brown February 19, 2011 | 9:34 a.m.

Mike Martin: I agree that early and ongoing education about the accomplishments and contributions of the multiple ethnic and racial groups in the US is commendable and needed. But doing that and having it produce positive outcomes requires preparation and commitment and imagination.
During my long term as a librarian, I saw the same half-hearted, pathetic and boring topics assigned by teachers during February. Teachers of all races sent their young students to find out "something" about George w. Carver or Jackie Robinson or to do trivia searches on the inventor of potato chips. Naturally, the eager students arrived early and grabbed whatever books were available. Latecomers could patch together bits and pieces. I don't remember anybody asking about W.E.B. DuBois or Marcus Garvey. Some fine biographies of Madame C.J. Walker, the first Black American woman to become a millionaire in business helped, though they avoided her radical pacifism during and after the First world War.
My library had some excellent biographical dictionaries and encyclopedias of African-American history and culture, but convincing kids to use them and learn about somebody they'd never heard of--and whose names weren't on "the list" provided by lazy teachers--was a task.
I can be persuasive but leading a 6th grader to believe that a report on a Black painter from Detroit would impress his teacher AND give him some pleasure can be hard work.
Decades of Februaries and Black History Weeks and Months have been squandered. The chance to reveal the ways that American culture has been fertilized by the contributions of men and women of color, in all states of servitude and freedom, at all levels of social and economic status, to the benefit of us all is still being wasted.

(Report Comment)
Ann Edwards February 19, 2011 | 9:34 a.m.

I'm running out of patience myself. I think we need a dose of reality. There will always be a few stupid, pathetic losers who hate people who are different. It's usually because of race, religion or gender preference, but could be for some other reason. While it's good to strive for "zero tolerance", we'll never get there.

Why does one of these losers strew cotton balls or paint graffiti? Could it possibly be because he wants attention? You can bet he's never done anything in his life before now that garnered this much attention. We are rewarding him for his action when we have meetings, write articles, hold press conferences, etc. We need to clean up the mess, kick him out of school, and go on to better things. A paragraph on page 2 should be all the notice he gets.

I also have a problem with calling this a "hate crime". "Hate misdemeanor" doesn't have much of a ring to it, but it fits the situation better. If this is a "hate crime" what do you call what happened in Tucson a few weeks ago?

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley February 19, 2011 | 10:30 a.m.

Good points, Ann! If more people approached this with that kind of intelligence, we could greatly reduce these types of problems, instead of throwing money that we don't have at them..

Ricky Gurley.

(Report Comment)
Fritz Otweiler February 19, 2011 | 12:24 p.m.

Mandatory diversity classes are not an example of societal reform--they are an example of university revenue generation. Racist families from racist communities will produce racist offspring. Expelling a racist freshman is far less likely to teach him better thinking than his forebears than giving him the life-improving, intellectually elevating experience of a completed undergraduate education in which he will learn from diverse professors about diverse ways of knowing and thinking while studying, living, and growing with diverse students with diverse backgrounds from diverse places.
Ostracism and viewpoint discrimination are only less confrontational forms of self-absorption and ignorance than racism itself.
As for it's own reputation, the university would do far better to show it's students and the state that it holds students equally accountable for all
actions taken following willful inebriation, regardless of the nature of the particular example. But then we would have to confront our athletic spectator, "greeklife", and near-campus bar business traditions too, wouldn't we?
At least this offender has youth, ignorance, and drunkeness as partial explanations (though not excuses) for his actions. How do we get the accountability into the system not only for him, but for all those whose silent acquiescence to drunken irresponsibility, cultural discrimination, and property destruction contributed to the mistaken beliefs of his operating premise?
Prosecute him, sure. But how about letting him stay, eliminating state financial aid, increasing his tuition 50% as a "jerk tax", and sending a press release to his hometown media with the headline: "Local man's drunken behavior shames his community and state"?

(Report Comment)
Michelle Markelz February 19, 2011 | 12:48 p.m.

@ Ann Edwards: I am a reporter for the Missourian, and though I don't personally believe in the press-coverage-as-reward idea, it's not because of my major. While we may be giving this person their 15 minutes of fame (though I doubt they see it that way when their mug shot makes the front page), that is the collateral damage of the more important reason we report it: the people it affects.

To not cover this issue would be an act of racism itself. Ignoring an issue, especially one with roots in minority injustice, is as bad as propagating apathy and hate by suggesting the people it hurt aren't worth the time and space.

Also, you used the word "different," I presume, to describe the African American community at MU, and minorities in general. I would caution you to do that, because it implies that only the majority is normal, which is really all a matter of opinion.

@ Eric Cox: I understand your frustration about adding diversity training in a time if economic hardship, especially if — as it seems to be in your case — the training is ineffective.

Having personally experienced some of the demonstrations done by MU's Multicultural Center, however, I would say that diversity education for freshman would be a great addition, so long as it is done well. Sometimes the problem with these programs is that they reinforce the stereotypes people already hold because they are preachy and accusatory. This doesn't mean that they can't be insightful and fulfilling.

I have confidence that MU has the resources and expertise to do this, but your skepticism is legitimate. It is always difficult to maintain quality when a program has to reach a large audience.

As for your estimations on the number of people that need the training, I don't disagree that only a few commit these types of crimes, but there are silent acts that any university has a stake in preventing by educating its students on the ways their actions/inactions/personal beliefs can be socially unjust. There is so much we don't know about each other because we aren't forced to get to know one another. Diversity training can be a way to understand those people we never would have talked to or associated with, as well as find out what our lack of knowledge about each other does to the community.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley February 19, 2011 | 1:27 p.m.

Michelle Markelz February 19, 2011 | 12:48 p.m.: To not cover this issue would be an act of racism itself. Ignoring an issue, especially one with roots in minority injustice, is as bad as propagating apathy and hate by suggesting the people it hurt aren't worth the time and space.

No it is not. Ignoring ignorant people is never as bad as encouraging them.....

Ricky Gurley.

(Report Comment)
Ann Edwards February 19, 2011 | 1:42 p.m.

OK, everybody's mad about it. Everybody wants to do something about it. Maybe we could be proactive instead of reactive. Why not start a scholarship fund in his name? Everyone who dislikes what he did can kick in $10. Should make a pretty tidy sum. Then, every semester, you can award a Benjamin Elliott Scholarship to an African-American student attending UMC. He can go down in history as a benefactor to minorities. I'm willing to bet this is not the kind of attention he wants. Anyone with half a brain would hesitate to commit similar outrages in the future if he knew he might end up helping the very people he hates.

(Report Comment)
Eric Cox February 19, 2011 | 3:22 p.m.

@Michelle Markelz,

I guess I don't understand your point, are you suggesting after diversity training I should just blindly accept any religion, regardless of their actions or creed? Understanding free people have a right to their own beliefs without discrimination, is one of the ideas I was to understand America was based on. That does not mean I have to personally believe that it's any more than ridiculous superstition. I learned all people deserve respect as a child from my parents, I learned in civics the philosophy behind the Bill of Rights that all men are created equal and should be free to have their own ideas, to live life and pursue happiness. I did not learn that in diversity training, and I've never had diversity training that covered any of that, diversity training basically instructs you on how not to not meet the legal definition of "hostile work environment" loosely wrapped in the "everybody is different" but you shouldn't treat them different. Frankly if you haven't figured out the everybody is different thing by the time you're 18 it's going to take something more profound than a class to get that message across.
Michelle, next time you're looking for a target for your self-righteous-indignation, look elsewhere.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith February 19, 2011 | 4:38 p.m.

@Eric Cox:

Very well put! Also, there will be a cost associated with establishing and carrying out the proposed "sensitivity training." For any such "add-on" there always is.

Who will pay for this? I assume that one way or another MU students will pay for it. Well, no problem! Just look at how "inexpensive" tuition and fees are now (and tuition is due to increase).

Two jackasses drop some cotton balls in 2010 and another jackass creates some "artwork" in 2011, and everybody enrolled at the campus has to suffer the consequences. Why? Oh yes, in our Brave New World individuals are no longer solely responsible for their wrongful acts, society must also pay a price. Ain't it all just wonderful?

(Report Comment)
Michelle Markelz February 19, 2011 | 5:01 p.m.

@ Eric Cox: I did not mean by my first post that anyone needs to blindly accept anything. I believe I actually addressed that blind acceptance tends to be the problem with a poor diversity awareness program, because people feel they are only being told what to think and how to act.

To clarify what I was speaking about, I'll use the example I experienced with the Multicultural Center. My class participated in a contained demonstration called "The Game of Life" in which we all were assigned different identities, but were not told what they were. We had to figure it out based on the way we were treated by the facilitators and the difficulties or ease with which we could access education, housing, employment and legal aid in this hypothetical world.

The point was that it is easier to understand people whose identity you don't share when you can experience life through their frame of reference. Obviously it is a demonstration, and not all white people are rich and well-educated, nor are all Hispanic people unable to speak English and manual laborers. However, it allows the participants to experience what being labeled in these ways feels like, a beneficial exercise for anyone who has come from a largely homogenous community.

As for being indignant, I think I presented my ideas calmly. If you feel targeted, I'm not sure how I contributed to it.

(Report Comment)
frank christian February 19, 2011 | 5:44 p.m.

Michelle Markelz - The leaders of UK, Germany, France have recently condemned Diversity, Multiculturalism as total failures in their countries. Some say diversity leads to political correctness. Would you like to respond?

(Report Comment)
Paul Allaire February 19, 2011 | 7:41 p.m.

Is there a link to a credible source for that information?

(Report Comment)
Robert Partyka February 20, 2011 | 11:25 p.m.

Why are people treating these proposed diversity requirements as a sort of punishment? Are people really that afraid to take a class that, heaven forbid, teaches them about others different than themselves? As for the cost argument, the university already requires students to take a number of "general education" courses in order to graduate from the school. How is a diversity requirement any different than the three "writing intensive" classes that the university already makes me take?

(Report Comment)
Jack Hamm February 21, 2011 | 7:28 a.m.

@ PA

Frank is referring to this...

As usual he did not fully understand what he was reading. Damn those reading comprehension skills! Most importantly this;
“Clearly, the discourse coming out of Berlin, London and Paris sees ‘multiculturalism’ in terms of integration and the assimilation of minorities. It has nothing to do with multiculturalism per se.”

(Report Comment)
Fritz Otweiler February 21, 2011 | 7:49 a.m.

@Robert Partyka--among other differences (some of which you might discover through a more careful reading of the comments preceding yours), UMC's writing intensive courses were developed campus-wide, in virtually all departments and disciplines, in response to a unanimity of opinion among professors (and based on ample physical evidence) that the writing skills of all students needed improvement if they were going to be academically successful.
Ms. Christonovich's student opinion, which is just that, one student's opinion, is in response to the actions of three students, over an 18 month period, taken outside of class, outside of instructional hours, not echoed by broad-based faculty or even student support, not tied to academic performance, and totally bereft of any evidence to support the requirement for all students.
Personally, I don't see the suggestion as punitive, just poorly reasoned and therefore unconvincing.
Your point raises an interesting question however, in that after two and a half decades of existence, and required of all students, the writing intensive program has only marginally improved the writing skills of students with no real hard data as evidence. Similarly, nearly three decades of anti-alcohol crusading by Res Life and UMC's variously self-styled Cary Nations has hardly dented that problem. Furthermore, the campus career advising center, ResLife, GreekLife, Black Culture, campus HR, UMPD, Summer Welcome, and many other programs and entities have been providing various levels of diversity trainings for decades as well, and yet current events clearly demonstrate those efforts do not impact a drunken fool with a spray paint can, acting alone in the wee hours of the night.
So, what makes anyone think these same mechanisms (even unjustifiably brought to bear) would have any greater success with in-class, for-fee, mandatory, campuswide "diversity" training?

(Report Comment)
frank christian February 21, 2011 | 1:02 p.m.

Jack Hamm - One wonders, how another can be so damn dense.

Read these words and believe them. But, for you I would have never heard of But for you I would never have read the dissertation from Institute of Policy Research, which describes itself as a think-tank, Independent, Radical, Progressive. Unlike you,I would not believe the attempt to explain what the leaders Really meant as well as what they should have meant. You and yours believe FOX NEWS tells viewers what to think? All I got was the words these people spoke or translated as was needed.

Thankfully,Michelle, when she gets back to us, will have a more intelligent subjective comment. Meantime, as I have related to some others, why don't you pull your nose out of your monitor, look around you and see what is actually going on in our world.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley February 22, 2011 | 2:10 a.m.


I don't know who you are referring to with this comment: "Meantime, as I have related to some others, why don’t you pull your nose out of your monitor, look around you and see what is actually going on in our world."

But I think it is worth saying that just because the only place that you come into contact with some people at is on the Internet, does not mean that the Internet is the only place they are at...

I have seen more "ugliness" in this world than most people will in two lifetimes. I suppose most of the work that I have done most of my adult life has exposed me to it... And I have learned a few things that most people that are not exposed to that "ugliness" do not know...

Ride in a car with a serial rapist for over a year all over the country, 1 to 3 times a week and just talk to him.. Get to know him.. And you'll know what I mean. Me? Been there, done that, and once I found out what he is, I put a stop to what he does. He will be in prison for the rest of his life.

And I can tell you this:

Nobody will ever know what REALLY makes a serial killer, kill or a serial rapist, rape. Or a terorist blow up a building. Nobody will ever be able to put their finger on exactly what makes bad people do bad things. We have tried, and we have all sorts of theories, but that is all we have. I do know one thing, and that is these type of people ALL have a "message" for us. The serial killer or serial rapist usually shows us that he or she "wants to be stopped, he or she can't help theirself", it is in the simple mistakes they make that are out of character for them. The terrorist has a "cause", and he or she wants us to know what it is. These people don't care if the attention is negative or not, as long as their "message" gets through to us, and the more people it gets through to the better they feel about sending it.

And what this young man did, while not as serious as any of the aforementioned crimes, fits into the same framework as to having a "message" for us. What this young man did can only be classified "free range, INTENTIONAL ignorance". And all we have done here, is give him a "platform" to send his message.

Now, Michelle may believe that reporting this and giving it the attention it has gotten is a "good thing". But the fact is the public can be aware without giving any attention to people like this. And after all, Michelle DOES work for the media, right? Would you expect her to have any other view on this issue?

All and all, my thoughts are, report the crime, no need to make it more than it is; an ignorant boy doing an ignorant thing. Move on, he needs not further "platform" to send his message from. There comes a point in which giving him too much of a "platform" to send his message from is worse than his crime......

Ricky Gurley

(Report Comment)
Jack Hamm February 22, 2011 | 6:59 a.m.

@ Rick


I don't know who you are referring to with this comment: "Meantime, as I have related to some others, why don’t you pull your nose out of your monitor, look around you and see what is actually going on in our world."

I'm not referring to anyone because I did not make that comment; Frank did. That should be obvious. Someone who is constantly posting on Columbia news websites telling someone who posts maybe once a week to get off the computer is laughable. Something that hypocritical and divorced from reality could only be said by Frank un-Christian.

(Report Comment)
Ricky Gurley February 22, 2011 | 10:11 a.m.

Well Frank then! LAMO!

Really... Imagine that being my response if you had corrected me in person, and in front of a group of people. A short, crisp, "Well Frank, then"! It is kinda funny, isn't it?

Sorry, Jack. It was late at night, I was working, stopped to take a "break", did not read the post like I should have.. Just look at the time on the post.... LOL.

But the substance of the post still stands...

Ricky Gurley

(Report Comment)
frank christian February 22, 2011 | 11:18 a.m.

Rick - "But I think it is worth saying that just because the only place that you come into contact with some people at is on the Internet, does not mean that the Internet is the only place they are at..."

You sure that was worth saying? Just kidding, hard work will do that, I heard.

My post stands as well.

(Report Comment)

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