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UMD chancellor: Facebook incident was 'despicable'

DULUTH - Characterizing last week's Facebook incident at the University of Minnesota Duluth as "horrendous and despicable" Chancellor Kathryn A. Martin's voice broke often as she spoke about it Thursday.

"I am deeply saddened for the young woman who was the victim of this," she said. "I can't believe ... people could cause the severity of pain and hurt this young woman is feeling. We want to do everything we can

to make sure she understands how supportive we are of her."

Martin said the university needs to work with the Student Association to address the issue. UMD -- which has 130 black students this year out of a total population of about 11,000 -- hasn't been as consistent as it should be about following up on racial incidents through the years, Martin said.

"I think we had let down the guard a little bit," she said. "Whether it's gay students, black students, Hispanic students ... we have an obligation to be more vigilant."

On April 14, two white female students allegedly engaged in a Facebook wall discussion about a black female student who had entered the study lounge they were in. The social networking site allowed the conversation to be seen by their Facebook friends, and it quickly spread. The racist conversation included several slurs.

UMD acted quickly to investigate but finds itself in murky territory without a policy that deals directly with social networking behavior on a UMD server. UMD has a zero-tolerance policy on racist behavior, included in its Student Conduct Code and U of M Regents policy.

It also has a technology policy that addresses harassment and discrimination involving UMD's server.

"It's a gray area," said Jackie Millslagle, vice chancellor of academic support and student affairs, who said the students were logged in to UMD's server.

The students were interviewed Monday by Deborah Petersen-Perlman, director of the Office of Equal Opportunity. They received a transcript of the interview and have until May 3 to file a response before sanctions are determined. The students could appeal the decision and remain eligible to attend classes through the process. If school has ended for the year by the time the process is over, any sanctions would begin at the start of next school year.

Martin said she was surprised by the Facebook conversation, noting students don't seem to understand the seriousness of what they write in a public venue.

"They need to learn very quickly that whether they say it in person or say it on a social network, the impact and severity is equally strong," she said. What they wrote reflects poorly on the entirety of the education system and "does damage to every mile you've walked."

Martin, who met with the victim Thursday morning, said her living arrangements on campus have been changed to make her more comfortable. UMD sent another campuswide e-mail Wednesday addressing the seriousness of the incident.

Martin wrote: "I want to assure the UMD community that UMD has zero tolerance for such vicious language and disrespectful behavior. ... I hope that the entire campus will engage in a process of restorative healing, in a sustained effort to grow and learn from this terrible incident."

Weekly or monthly conversations with students, faculty and deans need to happen to keep sensitive race issues at the forefront, Martin said.

Millslagle already has talked with the first-year experience directors about setting a tone as an open campus during welcome week next fall. The students who allegedly had the Facebook conversation are freshmen.

Martin, who plans to speak with the students being investigated, said she doesn't believe UMD has a racist atmosphere, but she said a campus with more than 13,000 people will have pockets of incivility.

"It created tension on campus; any incident such as this does," she said. "For anybody who's previously felt uncomfortable, it's increased tension. It might not have been from racism. It might have been a gay student or someone who felt uncomfortable, but it increases tension for individuals who have felt marginalized. And we are sorry for that."