The Justice Factor

By Chad Galts / May / June 2000
October 19th, 2007
Shortly before 2 a.m. on Monday, February 21, a fight broke out among four students just inside the door of Archibald House, a dormitory in Keeney Quad. When campus police arrived on the scene a few minutes later, the students were still engaged in a heated dispute. Although three of the students involved that night – Bradley Groover ’02, Jesse Savage ’01, and Adam Santee ’03 – were eventually charged by Providence police (two with simple assault and one with disorderly conduct) the fight’s aftershocks would be anything but simple: the three men are Caucasian, and their alleged victim, Ebony Thompson ’00, is an African-American woman.

As often happens in such cases, the conflict quickly shifted from the specific circumstances of the incident to the broader societal truths they represented for many students. Unfortunately, the basic facts of what happened were confused from the beginning – there were no witnesses to the actual altercation, and the participants tended to contradict themselves as well as one another. All four students seemed to agree on one fact, however: the fight began when Thompson failed to hold the door open for the three men as they tried to enter the dorm after her. Thompson also claimed that the men appeared intoxicated, and – although the accusation does not appear in the police report filed on the night of the incident – that one of them had used a racially derogatory remark, namely, referring to her as "a quota."

Four days later, despite heavy rain, more than 100 Thompson supporters gathered on the Green to protest the University’s handling of the case. Thompson, who claimed one of the men had kicked her, appeared with one arm in a sling and recounted the details of the assault and the events leading up to it. The protest then shifted down the block to the student-life office, where students demanded the immediate expulsion of Groover, Santee, and Savage. As the demonstrators chanted "Ho-ho, hey-hey! Kick them out today!" and "Are we safe here at Brown? Bring these racist people down!" Dean of Student Life Robin Rose told the group that the University was handling the case just as federal law requires: confidentially.

Rose agreed to meet with the protestors and anyone else interested in the case at an open forum two days later, on Sunday night. At that Sayles Hall forum, two of Thompson’s friends shared the stage with several administrators. Brown Police Chief Paul Verrecchia read his officers’ report of the incident, then Vice President of Campus Life and Student Services Janina Montero read a letter from President Sheila Blumstein announcing that the three men accused of attacking Thompson had been moved off campus while their case was being handled by the disciplinary system.

"The University regrets that the pace of its response fell short of our expectations," Blumstein wrote. "Violence or threats of violence will not be tolerated here." Rose then apologized: "I and members of my staff may have misperceived how seriously one of our students was feeling," she said, "and for that I am sorry."

Then, during the question-and-answer period, the forum took an unexpected turn. "It seems like Brown gets intimidated over issues of race and abandons a lot of its students," said the evening’s first questioner. "I don’t see any representation on this panel from anyone but the victim. Can you explain this?" Why did it seem, others asked, as if the administration was taking Thompson’s side?

Thompson’s allies responded angrily. Some spoke passionately about their own experiences with racism on campus, while others referred to violence against blacks happening far from Keeney Quad: "Especially with the Diallo case," said one graduate student, referring to the acquittal that week of the New York City police officers who had shot an unarmed African immigrant, "it all seems so much worse and darker for us now."

A rift had opened at the forum. Some students believed that the University, in its desire to smooth political and racial sensitivities, was overreacting to a case where the specifics were cloudy at best; other students saw in the incident a glaring example of thuggish behavior at best, and blatant racism at worst.

For the moment, at least, emotion was high. Josh Woody ’00 found out about the Sunday-night forum only a few minutes before it began, but this case, he says, "really upset me." Woody is a friend of the alleged assailants and is mystified by the charges against them. "They’re good guys," he says. "I can’t personally see them doing what they’ve been accused of doing – intoxicated or not. I don’t want to accuse [Thompson] of being a liar, but Brown and the Providence police are going through their judicial processes. Just let them do it."

Maria Reff ’00, who helped organize the rally of Thompson’s supporters, is as adamant as Woody about her beliefs: but she thinks Brown administrators didn’t do enough for Thompson after the altercation. Reff had become angry on Thursday night, when she found that her friend Thompson had been sleeping on the floor of a friend’s room because she feared encountering the three men in her dorm. It was this inaction by the University that triggered the Friday rally, Reff says: "Student Life had a week to take action, and they’d done nothing."

Rose and her colleagues in the student-life office insist that they did, in fact, begin an investigation immediately after the incident, but under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, which keeps student records confidential, they could not discuss it publicly. "The rules of confidentiality apply to any student, under any circumstances," Blumstein says. "There is a right to privacy – and it’s a federally mandated one."

On March 22, the University Disciplinary Council ruled that Groover, Santee, and Savage had violated several sections of Brown’s disciplinary code, but none of the three was found to have engaged in racial harassment. Different punishments were meted out to each: one was expelled, one was suspended, and one was sanctioned. (The three students still face criminal charges in Providence District Court, with a trial date set for mid-May.)

The University’s decision was greeted with disgust by supporters of the three men, who believe the ruling bears out their fears of prejudgment. Thompson’s supporters were equally dissatisfied; in their view, race had clearly been a factor in the fight, and more than one of the assailants should have been expelled.

Despite the dissension the case triggered, Janina Montero believes that it has brought latent resentments into the open, where they can be examined and confronted. "White students tend to see these things as isolated incidents," says Montero, whom Blumstein has charged with reviewing the administration’s response to this case. "But students of color tend to see them as one more incident that points to their place in the society they live in."

The key to resolving conflicts such as this one, Montero says, is getting each group to understand the other’s position, instead of allowing it to get more deeply entrenched. "If I’m right," she adds, "the conversation between these groups is going to be a difficult one, but there’s a great deal to be learned."

What do you think?
See what other readers are saying about this article and add your voice. 
Related Issue
May / June 2000