by Travis Handy
RADFORD, Va.–On a snowy evening in the spring semester of 2011, Radford University student Jordan Addison walked a female friend from Young Hall to Muse. After seeing his friend safely back to her dorm and beginning the walk back across campus, two males approached him from behind. They shoved Addison into the brick and mortar planter in front of Muse and threw him to the ground as they laughed and shouted homophobic slurs.
“I know the main thing I heard was “faggot” over and over as they were pushing me and stuff,” Addison said. “I think a couple of other things were said, just like the same kind of slurs … but I know the two guys were laughing the whole time. But I can’t really… you know… I don’t talk about it a lot, so it’s not really fresh, but I know the ‘F-word’ was the big one. That’s how I knew this was not small.”
Addison was kicked several times, but he said no punches were thrown.
“I was on the ground,” Addison said. “I just stayed there.”
The whole thing ended almost as suddenly as it began, according to Addison. He wasn’t seriously injured, but he was unable to identify the assailants. His description matched the typical dress of the average male student; one wore a red baseball cap and a black North Face jacket, and the other wore sweats and a T-shirt.
After the incident, Addison had no idea where to turn. He said he told his family first and they encouraged him to report the incident to the university, but he didn’t know exactly who to tell or where to go.
“I didn’t actually talk to anybody,” Addison said. “I had posted something about it on Facebook and I guess word just got around and Bobby Bell and Dr. [Fran] Steigerwald contacted me. So I never actually talked to anybody about it, but I did call the [Radford City] police, though.”
Addison said the two faculty members went through administrative channels on his behalf while he remained anonymous. His call to city police did not bring any results or very much in the way of comfort.
“Their response was to tell me not to be out so late on my own,” Addison said. “Which, I guess they didn’t understand that I was a student here… and I did call RUPD after that and a report was filed.”
According to Addison, the incident brought up a few different feelings, and changed his perception of the community, somewhat.
“In regards to the campus climate, I’ve become a lot more cautious,” Addison said. “It made me feel, for one, like I was wasting my money, because I got into several other schools. I could have gone to William and Mary, which was actually my first choice, but I chose to come here, for one, because it’s closer to home and there’s a lot less violent incidents and things like that, that happen here. So I felt like my $20,000 a semester was not worth very much, when I can’t even walk across campus holding my partner’s hand… so a little bitter, I guess, but probably more fearful than anything.”
Addison didn’t lose faith in the remainder of the student body, though his eyes were opened to the presence of certain attitudes among his fellow students.
“Well, I won’t say for the students overall,” Addison said. “It did make me wonder, but for the most part I’ve had pretty positive experiences here, so I wouldn’t say overall, but as far as saying those kinds of prejudices are still here…”
Addison indicated he felt the incident wasn’t addressed the way he had hoped it would be. He wanted there to at least be an email alert sent to students, warning them of the incident and encouraging people with information to come forward. To his disappointment, such a warning was never issued.
Members of RU’s administration and its police department say reports of hate crime incidents on campus are uncommon. Sergeant Scott Shaffer, a crime prevention officer for the RUPD said that while he cannot speak for city police, to his knowledge, there have been no incidents of bias based crimes reported to RUPD in recent months.
Shaffer’s claims are backed by the 2011-2012 Annual Safety & Security Report and Annual Fire Safety Report, part of routine crime and incident record reporting required of campus police. The report shows no hate crime incidents reported at RU, dating all the way back to 2008.
Shaffer addressed the reason why an email like the one Addison had suggested would not have been issued, saying timely warning emails are normally sent out in instances where an ongoing threat exists or when there is imminent danger to the campus community. Timely warnings are regulated by federal law under the Clery Act, and the police department follows the law in the decision-making process. Not every incident falls into the category which warrants a timely warning.
According to a 2011 FBI release of hate crime statistics, “of the 6,624 single bias incidents [reported in 2010] … 19.3 percent were motivated by a sexual orientation bias.”
“Identifying the motivation of an offender can be difficult, especially if the attack was perpetrated by an unknown person,” Shaffer said, via email. “Another issue we face is that victims do not always come forward, and that is why we always encourage our students to report crimes to the PD. We understand that assaults are traumatic for victims and we do our best to support victims of crimes as they are asked to relive the experience for the purposes of a report.”
Shaffer is not alone in noting that victims don’t always come forward. Some of the reasons they may not speak out include fear, intimidation, and being worried that their claims will not be taken seriously. Administrators who deal with conduct code violations are not getting reports of bias-based incidents either.
“What I would be interested in is if students don’t feel like they can come to the Dean’s office, they don’t feel like they can go to the police, I’d like to know why,” said David Horton, RU’s Assistant Dean of Students. “I addressed that, as did Dr. [Mark] Shanley, when we both visited a [Gay Straight Alliance] meeting that was held about a year ago, to try to say these discussions need to take place, and if you feel like someone is not being treated fairly, come talk to us so we can help you. I don’t get a lot of students that come to me about it, but I would be more than willing to help them.”
Horton said if a student feels the need to bring conduct charges against another student, there is a process that is followed by administrators to assess those situations and address alleged code violations, wherever they exist.
“The bottom line is that every student deserves protection from the university,” Horton said. “No one should live with any harassment, any physical abuse, any kind of threats, anything along that line. We do our best to take care of that, to make sure that students are protected. Their health and safety is most important.”
RU is not known for having an overtly homophobic or heterosexist atmosphere, but according to some students and faculty members, some of those attitudes definitely exist and affect the lives and learning potential of RU’s LGBTQ community. In response to the presence of those prejudices, there are individuals and campus organizations at work to combat homophobia.
“I think it is a big issue in our culture, so absolutely it is an issue at RU,” said Gabriella Smith, via email. “I think that in almost all institutions homophobia is an issue. The good thing about this environment is that we are starting to accept that it is a problem.”
Smith is an instructor in RU’s Department of Sociology, as well as a trainer and presenter for Safe Zone, an organization that works within the campus community and aims to establish a welcoming environment for LGBTQ members of the university as well as the surrounding community. Smith also currently serves on Safe Zone’s Governance and Research committees.
Safe Zone creates a network of allies who are willing to provide support to LGBTQ people, and they are publicly identified by stickers placed on office and dorm room doors. “Safe” programs exist on many campuses throughout the country.
As for the major issues around RU’s campus, Smith says she mostly sees what sociologists call “micro-aggressions”, like using slurs casually, or being accepting of calling something “gay”, or homophobic language and behavior that is dismissed as joking around.
“We need to work to make people aware that these have an impact on their fellow campus citizens and create a hostile, stressful environment,” Smith said. “Obviously we still have problems with more overt bullying and even assault at RU, but I think changing campus culture starts with the little things we see every day but easily dismiss.”
Smith stressed the importance of what Safe Zone does in terms of pointing LGBTQ students facing hard times in the direction of people who are willing and able to help them through their problems.
“I think Safe Zone is an important presence because it shows … that RU is dedicated to making the campus safe for all members of our community, and I think the visibility of support for LGBTQ members of our community is really important to show that support is being normalized, that it is everywhere and is mainstream,” Smith said.
Another Safe Zone ally is John Leonard, who is RU’s director of Student Activities. He holds a view that is slightly different from Smith’s, in terms of how big of a problem he perceives homophobia to be on campus.
“The term ‘homophobia’ carries such weight, and I don’t think we’re a homophobic campus, but I think we’re very much a heterosexist campus,” said Leonard.
Leonard shared some of the remarks he has heard from students about their perceptions of the climate on campus. In a workshop conducted by Safe Zone and Spectrum, a campus LGBTQ student organization, several students commented that they felt safer on campus than they did back at home, and said they looked forward to being on campus because they felt safer and more secure at RU. He also said that students felt there was less blatant homophobia that they experienced on campus.
“They did experience some, because it’s definitely out there,” said Leonard. “But they said that overall they thought that Radford was better.”
In March, there was a screening of a documentary called “Beyond the Silence”, which was created by Dr. Joseph R. Jones of the School of Teacher Education and Leadership. The film focuses on the impact of bullying and homophobia experienced in both K-12 schools and colleges. The screening was followed by a panel discussion, affording audience members the opportunity to ask questions and discuss their opinions regarding the film’s topic and the way homophobia is addressed at RU. Many of the audience members had never heard of Safe Zone and were not familiar with the work the program does.
Dr. Jones also creates and conducts professional developments for teachers, and has authored a book called “Making Safe Places Unsafe: A Discussion of Homophobia with Teachers”. The developments assist teachers in finding ways to create safe learning environments for all students. Confronting homophobia is something that is important to Jones, and he believes open discussions are a catalyst for positive change.
“I think some people are reluctant [to speak out], which is the whole purpose of Safe Zone,” Jones said. “If people weren’t reluctant, then we wouldn’t need to have stickers outside our doors. I think perhaps they are reluctant, because with all types of hatred, or phobias, racism, whatever… it’s difficult for people to say ‘this is what happened to me.’ But I think if people realize that if they do that, then the climate of the university is supportive enough to address the problem and immediately take care of it.”
Since the incident in 2011, Addison, now 20 years old, has become more active in RU’s LGBTQ community. Along with pursuing double majors in Psychology and Sociology, he is vice president of Spectrum, and he also devotes a lot of time to Safe Zone training sessions for resident advisors and members of the general student population who want to become allies.
He expressed a desire to see more professors incorporating Safe Zone into their curricula in order to increase awareness and make the campus safer and more inclusive, and he would like to see more of the faculty and administration go through Safe Zone training as well.
Addison offered words of encouragement to students who might have been in a situation similar to his, or who might someday find themselves there.
“There are a lot of people on this campus who really, truly care,” said Addison. “If you don’t say anything, it’s never going to get better. So my advice would be just to speak out. You don’t even have to give your name. You can be anonymous. I was anonymous for the longest time… Just speak out. Let them know what happens. File a police report. Somebody is going to care enough to be on your side.”