Mará Rose Williams, Kansas City Star, July 6, 2020
Michaela Ross, a Kansas State University sophomore, went to her internship boss at Exxon Mobile last week and told him, “I’m scared to go back to school.”
She wanted him to know why she couldn’t concentrate on work. She was preoccupied checking in with schoolmates after a K-State student’s racially insensitive tweets about George Floyd offended students of color — and drew support from national white supremacist groups.
“I’m not scared to speak out. I’m scared of the unknown,” said Ross, a mechanical engineering student from Blue Springs. “I feel like the K-State environment is hostile and not welcoming to Black students. And our administration has not taken actionable measures against racist incidents that have happened there, and this is not the first one.”
Many students on social media and in conversations with The Star have expressed concern about returning to the campus for the fall semester, despite statements university officials have made about their willingness to address the problem.
In an unscientific student poll on Twitter, 124 of the approximately 700 Black students on the Manhattan campus responded to the question, “Do you feel safe on campus?” About 80% said no, they don’t.
Some incoming freshmen questioned their school choice given the many confessions about racism on campus that students tweeted under the hashtag #BlackAtKState. Others warned prospective students to choose a different school.
“I think the tensions are very high, and I don’t think that it is safe at all,” said Amaya Molinar, 19, who is from Wichita and studying biological systems engineering. “I definitely feel nervous. I have been called the N-word on campus. I feel like things like that will be more common in the fall given what has happened this summer, and I am totally scared.
“And the university knows that we are concerned because they have offered us counseling services. But we don’t want counseling. Instead of teaching us how to live with racism on campus they should focus their efforts on eliminating it.”
K-STATE’S LIST OF ACTIONS
K-State has been in the headlines for more than a week since Jaden McNeil, a junior in political science and head of K-State’s controversial America First Students chapter, tweeted about Floyd, the 46-year-old Black man killed in May under the knee of a white police officer in Minneapolis, sparking protests across the country.
McNeil’s tweet — “Congratulations to George Floyd on being drug free for an entire month!” — drew immediate reaction. Many supported his right to free speech, but most denounced the tweet. K-State students, alumni and others called for him to be expelled. And some K-State athletes said they refused to be involved in any athletic activities on campus until McNeil was gone.
On Wednesday, K-State President Richard Myers announced the university would not expel McNeil, implying that to do so may violate McNeil’s First Amendment rights. “While these messages are disrespectful and abhorrent, we cannot violate the law,” Myers said.
Myers’ comments came with a list of actions the university would take instead, including improving the process for receiving complaints of discrimination, developing a social media policy for students, training for staff, scholarships for minority students, and recruiting and retaining more students and faculty of color.
K-State football players, who had initially said they would not play for the Wildcats until McNeil was gone from campus, last week announced that they are pleased with the way K-State leaders have reacted and that they will show up at voluntary workouts scheduled to resume July 13.
The athletic department announced it would institute its own policies to combat racism, including launching a fund to support diversity initiatives; mandatory diversity and inclusion training for student-athletes, coaches and staff; and promoting the Black Lives Matter movement at all home games.
But some non-athletes said they were not satisfied, saying the president’s plan sounds like promises they’ve heard before.
“When I read the statement, it just seemed like it wasn’t doing anything,” said Sarah, a K-State junior who was too afraid of repercussions from groups that support McNeil to give her last name. She recalled her freshman year, walking to her dorm from work when a carload of white K-State students yelled at her, “You don’t belong here,” as they drove past. “I was scared. It was dark. I thought they were going to turn around and come back. I remember calling my mother that night in tears.“
When students tweeted last week that they have considered leaving K-State, university officials attempted to assure students their safety is a priority.
”We encourage any student who feels threatened to contact the Office of Student Life,” said Jeff Morris, university spokesman. “We have a wide array of resources to help them. We have been working closely with many of our students and student athletes who have been affected by recent events.”
“The university is moving forward with action steps announced last week and has built a webpage to publicly track progress. University leaders responsible for overseeing action step progress are currently being identified. … Student voices, along with our faculty and staff, will be critical in moving forward with these steps and ones that may be added as this important work evolves.”