By: Kayleigh Omang & Anna Landsverk
Two months after a student senate member was accused of making a racist comment, a resolution is finally being reached.
In late February, the chair of the diversity committee, Lexi Byler, was the subject of an alleged second-hand racist comment by student senate vice president-elect Adam Schutt. Schutt has denied that he made the comments credited to him by his girlfriend during a philosophy class discussion.
Rachielle Gillstrap, Schutt’s girlfriend, claimed in the discussion that Schutt had called Byler an “angry black woman,” a long-held stereotypical insult toward black women. An unnamed student in the class was concerned about the comments and reported them to Byler through other people.
“As to comments I’m being alleged to have saying, I never made those comments,” Schutt said. “I have not in any way—that comment that was said from a student who tried to drive a wedge of race of the student body—I would never do anything like that.”
Initially, the student senate took no action on the issue, but after a month of growing concerns among several students of color, the issue was finally raised at the weekly meeting on March 30.
Several members of the campus community who heard about the alleged comments attended the meeting. Because of the hostility of the environment and their distaste for what was being said regarding their race, a number of students walked out of the meeting. According to Byler, only one returned.
“They knew about the situation and they wanted to see how it was going to be handled, and they were not pleased with how it was handled, obviously,” Byler said.
At the meeting, the issue sparked hostility, with members speaking angrily and interrupting other senators. According to Byler and other senators, Schutt was particularly angry and disrespectful in his tone, which they felt alienated the black students in attendance.
Regardless of where the conflict’s roots began, Byler was concerned by how the situation had been handled by senate.
“The bigger issue now is the fact that this happened on March 30 and the senate has done nothing about it,” Byler said. “Just yesterday, I had a black student come up to me and say, ‘Hey, I heard so-and-so’s going on in senate,’ and he’s asking me for an answer, and unfortunately I have to tell him that we haven’t done anything about it.”
An executive session was held later for just senate members to try and work through the issue, although the discussions devolved into conflict.
In response to this, an emergency meeting was then called on April 11. This meeting also went poorly and no resolution was found.
After no productive action was taken within senate after the second meeting, Byler sent out a press release outlining her plans for the next senate meeting, held on April 20.
“The Diversity Committee has chosen to take matters into their own hands,” read Byler’s press release from April 19. “At the meeting on Thursday, April (20) at 6:00pm, they will read a joint statement and then walk out of the meeting, refusing to participate until they stop ignoring this issue.”
At the April 20 meeting, Byler read an email she sent to Jane Elliot, a long-time activist for minorities and the former third-grade teacher who created the famous “Blue Eye Brown Eye” experiment with her students to highlight discrimination. Byler also read Elliot’s two-part response.
“My question for you is: how can we address this issue when this person (Schutt) refuses to listen, is refusing to learn, and is hostile and angry whenever we try to discuss it? Do you have any advice for this type of situation, or is this person a lost cause?” Byler asked in her email to Elliot.
After reading the email, she and the diversity committee, along with other members of the senate, walked out of the meeting to congregate in the senate office. They chose to do this in the hopes of creating a new environment to discuss possible solutions to the issue.
“I think you need to discuss the problem, and then discuss the solution to that problem,” senate treasurer Alexandra Tollefson said. “So when we bring up these points that ‘We were uncomfortable when X happened, or when Y happened, that should not have been allowed’—I think instead of just piling on the problems, we should go, ‘We weren’t comfortable when X happened, this is what should have happened, this would be the solution, this is what we would’ve liked to have seen, this is what we’re going to do better’. . . . Because then you’re moving towards your end goal and still having a productive discussion about the issue at hand.”
In the senate office, Byler laid out rules for a controlled meeting to avoid the previous arguments from the larger senate sessions. She was determined to handle the situation in a calm, collective way before she would allow senate to move on with the rest of their agenda. After two hours of deliberation a solution was finally found, according to Byler.
“I think that (Schutt’s) taken the situation more seriously now and he does want to work from it—I feel like he does want to learn from it and grow from it,” Byler said. “I think now, Adam—I don’t think at first Adam saw the big picture, I think he was more focused on ‘I don’t think you’re an angry black woman, I didn’t say that,’ and now after last night I think he does understand the bigger picture and how things were mishandled.”
The senate hopes to return to business on Thursday, April 27, at their regular meeting. Then they will finally put SABC funding requests to a vote, since the measure has already been delayed by the fighting within the senate for weeks.
Still, despite the flared tempers and hurt feelings on both sides of the issue, Byler is optimistic that these difficult discussions will serve as an example for next year’s student senate and open an opportunity for real change.
“As frustrating and long as this process was, I do think it was a huge learning moment for a lot of people,” Byler said.