GSA’s response ‘We’re not going anywhere’

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     Slurs against gay rights supporters and alleged vandalism to a hay bale decorated as a rainbow sheep for an ABAC contest sparked an uproar on social media last week, reaching hundreds of people and drawing attention from a Tallahassee news station.

     ABAC’s police chief and administration have dismissed the complaint as “storm damage” even though many still see it as a hate crime and act of vandalism. One student who admitted to using the slur “f**king queers” made an apology to the ABAC Police Department.

     General Provisions, from the ABAC student handbook, states, “all individuals expressing themselves on ABAC’s campus must comply with the following provisions: 1. Disruptive Activity – Obstruction, disruption, or interference with classes, administrative functions, or other college activities or events is not permitted. Likewise, infringement on the rights of others is prohibited. Any attempt by repeated demands, threats, or otherwise to coerce passerby into stopping and participating in debate or discussion is prohibited.”

     Club members say the dean said no punishment would be assessed because students have freedom of speech. Dean of Students, Bernice Hughes has declined requests for an interview.

    The ABAC GSA is a club dedicated to unifying the LGBTQ+ community with the rest of ABAC’s campus. Their hale bale was decorated as a rainbow sheep with the sign, “Be the rainbow sheep in the family.” It was one of several decorated hay bales entered in the ABAC Horticulture Club Contest. Even with GSA’s mission of tolerance and inclusion, this is just the latest act of harassment and vandalism against the group.

     In 2009, the club, then known as SPECTRA, was initially refused status as a club by student government. After they were allowed club status, club members complained that their signs would be torn down and their efforts were disrespected.

     According to a February article in The Stallion, “GSA members are accustomed to getting dirty looks, eye rolls or the occasional snarky remark.” The article describes an event at Lakeside where a group of people took candy from their table. The club members offered them a flyer.

     Ari Penne, a GSA club member, said, “I guess they didn’t like that because on their way out they threw a flyer and a stress ball at us.”

     The latest conflict began on Wednesday, Nov. 6, when GSA members noticed that a part of their hay bale for the Horticulture Club contest had been ripped off.

     “We discovered it around two or three,” Alex Griffin, the acting GSA co-president, stated. Griffin is also the Agriculture Editor at The Stallion but did not take part in the writing or editing of this article.

     Not wanting to assume the worst from minimal damage, the members went to repair their entry later that day. “Wednesday night, we were going to finish our hay bale by decorating it and putting the last details on it. That’s when the truck drove by and said something, but we weren’t sure what.”The black GMC Sierra drove back to the hay bale as members finished decorating their entry. This is when the occupants of the truck began making threats and slurs to the members. “They stopped in front of our haybale and started saying ‘Look at that sh*t, we should tear it down,’ and ‘I’m gonna rip that off.’ They were basically talking about how they were going to destroy it and that’s when they screamed ‘f**king queers.”After the incident, the members called the ABAC police around 6:15 p.m.

     The police report states, “OfficerWisenbaker received a call about students threatening to damage a decorative bale on Perimeter Road.”

      Griffin said, “The police came and basically was like, ‘it’s going to be your word versus their word.’ They told us not to engage with them and that they would have someone watch after our hay bale and have surveillance on it.”

      “My folks stayed with it until they got off at eleven o’clock, just watching because they said there were threats,” Frank Strickland, the ABAC Chief of Police, said.

      Even after the police said they would watch the hay bale, it managed to receive more damage on the next night.

      “Friday morning, we woke up and it was like the pictures with the netting ripped down. I woke up to a message from one of the members of what had happened to the hay bale and she said, ‘I know that we had a storm last night, but I don’t think the weather did that,” stated Griffin.

      The ABAC and Tifton community found out about the incident through two posts on Facebook.

      “The social media reports were from a third party that are family members of the members from GSA,” Isabella Sauls, co-president of the GSA, said.

      The original post was by Meagan Celeste on Friday, Nov. 8, around 4 p.m. This post contains screenshots of a conversation between Celeste and Griffin stating what had occurred. It received over 250 shares and numerous comments.

      “We’ve got major support from people who’ve commented on the posts, but we’ve also gotten hate. There are people who think that we don’t belong here at ABAC because it’s an agriculture school,” said Sauls.

      Many people online were concerned that the school delayed making a statement about the matter for over a week, some complaining that the school would take more action if it were a different club on campus.

      Dr. Jay Baldwin, the Assistant Professor of Communication, said, “You can’t wait to respond because we live in an age of social media where the narrative is going to get formed. That discussion is going to happen whether you engage with it or not. As an organization, if you don’t engage with that, you have no input on what that narrative is going to be.”

     Dr. Jess Usher, the Assistant Professor of History and Rural Studies and the faculty adviser for the Student Government Association (SGA), also commented, “The thing with the administration side of this is they are often handcuffed by USG policy. There are very strict guidelines about what you can say and not say. Especially when you have investigations underway, you want to protect the victims above all, but you also want to protect the rights of anyone who might be accused of what I considered are the crimes involved.”

     “With everyone’s emotions and everything that’s been said and everything that’s been done, people want to believe that it was intentional, but I don’t think it was,” Strickland said.

      Strickland said he believes a thunderstorm damaged the GSA hay bale entry.

      “We had a pretty good thunderstorm around 1:30 or two o’clock in the morning with wind and rain. There were four or five other hay bales that had damage from the storm. It’s my belief based on the way that this is damaged that it was the storm also,” Strickland said.

      The reason he believes this was storm damage is that the netting came off at the anchor part in the hay bale. The wind picked up the pieces of cotton, took hay with it and strung it across the ground around the bale. The face of the sheep and the sign were also left unbothered, which led to the conclusion that the storm caused the damage.

     Strickland backs his statement up with his personal opinion on the matter. “If you were gonna damage something and tear something up, why would you leave the head on it and why would you leave the sign alone,” Strickland said.

     Lindsey Roberts, The Director of Marketing and Communication, issued a statement on Friday, Nov. 15, a week after the incident.

       “ABAC has reviewed the matter and was unable to determine any vandalism occurred. The damage is believed to be attributed to the storm that occurred early on the morning of November 8, which also damaged other hay bales. The language used by one individual is not representative of ABAC nor what we aspire to be as a community. ABAC is working with the students involved,” Roberts stated.

      “Even if it is 100 percent true that the weather did this damage, it’s already been perceived in the minds of people in the community that this was an act of vandalism. That’s the risk that you run when you don’t make a statement earlier,” Baldwin said. “I seriously doubt that that statement is going to be met with anything but a bunch of ridicule and part of that reason was because of a more forceful statement wasn’t made immediately.”

      Griffin doesn’t believe that the weather was to blame for the hay bale damage. “Ours was the only one that got destroyed. The others had a few things knocked down but nothing like ours where it was torn, cut, ripped or shredded,” she said.

      Chief Strickland also said, “We identified the folks involved in the first incident. They came by and hollered whatever they hollered. We talked and interviewed all four. One of the boys admitted to saying something pretty ugly. That’s been referred administratively to Dean Hughes and student affairs.”

     Griffin said, “Today (Nov. 15), we were called in and she (Dean Hughes) told us that this is now a closed investigation. The one boy said that he’s very sorry and the ABAC lawyers have now said that it was free speech and the hay bale being torn apart was just the weather.”

      The GSA still hopes for something more positive in the future of their club. “Hopefully, people will learn that they can’t get away with this kind of stuff on campus. Unlike administration, we are not going to let this go or forget about it,” said Sauls.

     The first post from the GSA Facebook page after the incident supported their statements, “By now everyone should know about what happened to our hay bale. Unfortunately, it was vandalized. However, we cannot let this stop us from showing that we exist at ABAC. What was done to our hay bale shows more about those that did it than it does us. We are not going anywhere.”

     Usher said, “I want to know about what we need to do to keep problems like this from happening again. That takes the whole community. That takes administration. That takes faculty and staff and, most importantly, that takes students. I think you’ll see a response from (the student government) that there will be a call for some sort of campus event, forum, the discussion so that these problems are not ignored. The last thing that student government should do is say let’s pretend it didn’t happen and that’s not the stance of the student government president or any of the other officers at (the student government).”

       A mass email sent to all ABAC students said the student government will be meeting on Nov. 18 to discuss how to prevent these incidents from happening in the future. According to the email, “Topics for discussion include developing student discussion events to support GSA and help prevent hate speech on campus.”

      The student government struggled with this issue for a week. On Saturday following the incident, The Stallion staff reached out to Student Government President Jake Harris for a statement. Harris, who is also an ABAC Ambassador, said on Saturday, Nov. 9, “Please direct all of your questions to the ABAC Office of Marketing and Communications.”

     Harris said, “I do not know all the details of what happened, so I was instructed by the Dean of Students to refer questions to the ABAC Office of Marketing and Communications.” As an Ambassador, Harris’ adviser is Lindsey Roberts of the Office of Marketing and Communications. As SGA President, Harris’ adviser is Jess Usher. A week passed and Harris issued a second statement on Friday, Nov. 15.

     “The ABAC Student Government Association (SGA) is dedicated to uniting all stallions by creating an atmosphere of excellence and respect. Therefore, we condemn any act of violence towards any person no matter their race, class, sexual orientation or religion. In response to the recent event concerning the Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA), SGA is working with the GSA to do its part in preserving a spirit of harmony among our student body,” Harris said.

      If any students are affected by this incident or any other incident, they are encouraged to visit the Student Development Center located in Branch 216. Their operating hours are from 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 8 a.m. through 3 p.m. on Fridays.

      Shuba Chatterjee, an ABAC counselor and lecturer of psychology, wants all students to be aware of the free services provided by the center.

      “I am here for my students and they mean a lot to me. Whether it’s this incident or any other incident or for anything that any student is going through,” Chatterjee stated, “ABAC is a family and I really believe in that, that we can together, we can help each other. I would like our students to do well and have peace in their life. They shouldn’t be in fear of talking to us.”

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