By Amelia Leaphart
On June 9, Provost Nancy Berner sent an email to the student body reporting that, due to the “lack of first-hand corroborating reports,” no individuals could be held responsible for racist epithets shouted at a March 2021 men’s lacrosse game against players from Emmanuel College. The investigation began March 14, relying on students to utilize an anonymous reporting platform, Maxient, to report any relevant knowledge. Although around 120 Sewanee students attended the game, none of the reports provided a first-hand account, according to Berner’s school-wide email.
The university appointed three investigators and had their work reviewed by an outside law firm. Multiple administrators were contacted for this article, including but not limited to Provost Nancy Berner, Dean of Students Lauren Goodpaster, and Athletic Director Mark Webb, who all declined to comment. Emmanuel College’s men’s lacrosse coach, Bert Serverns, also has not responded to The Purple’s inquiries.
Student Government Association president, Lakeisha Phillips (C ’22) said, “I expected, not names to be released to the students, but actions taken against the students that were at the event and took part in it. I also didn’t expect them to remain on-campus.”
Alexis Carrillo (C ’22), president of Hispanic Organization for Latino Awareness (HOLA), said “I know it’s not in their power to say their students names, but at least to say their consequences if they were able to find these students. For the minority community to have a better feeling knowing that the people responsible had consequences.”
Carrillo said she was disappointed yet not surprised by the inconclusive results.
“I heard of situations where students have said racist slurs or being just racist in general to minority students and those students had been reported, but nothing has ever been done,” Carrillo said, “…There was some hope that the University would change the outcome and be a bigger person.”
Although Phillips was disappointed by the results, she notes how “the administration aren’t the only ones at fault for this. It’s also all the students that were at the game and heard the slurs and decided not to speak up and report…It’s like you can’t really get an answer if people aren’t stepping up.”
According to Phillips, the Student Government Association has received no information outside what had been shared with the student body.
“Just because it’s a typical Sewanee rumor mill, students knew who it was,” Phillips said.
Nevertheless, Phillips thinks SGA’s agenda would have remained the same whether the University dismissed the students or not.
Phillips said, “With COVID, our biggest focus was on rebuilding the trust within the student body,” and she continued that the lacrosse game created another reason to focus on building trust between students and administrators as well.
Phillips also noted how the event bolstered pre-existing pushes for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusivity chairs within campus organizations.
“When I think about the lacrosse incident,” Phillips said, “I think of it as one of the bigger reasons why the work from the NAACP and the Roberson Project is so important. Uncovering the history of the University and understanding how that history impacts us today. I’m hoping that this incident is more of a driving factor for students to want to be better allies and be more involved, more vocal, and speak out. And that it doesn’t happen again, I think that’s a common consensus.”
Alexis McKnight (C ’22), president of the Order of the Gown, said, “My hopes were that the individuals found responsible were going to be found guilty and expelled from the University. I also hoped that the individuals who attended the lacrosse game were going to come forward about what they witnessed, because it is impossible that 100 people would be at an event and no one knows anything.”
Similar to Phillips, McKnight said the lacrosse game did not change anything about the Order’s agenda; rather, it “brought to light the campus issues that need to be addressed quickly and are of the most importance,” McKnight said.
McKnight heard about the results of the investigation while at the University’s archeology field school this summer, accompanied by students from different schools.
“It felt humiliating to go to this University…,” McKnight said, “I had to describe to [the other students] what had happened and [that the results] were inconclusive. It was just disheartening. I cannot begin to understand how others felt, those who were more affected by the words that were said.”
McKnight notes how she believes these results indicate how misconduct is addressed by the University. “If something of that stature cannot be solved, it creates a concern of what else can happen,” she said.
Carrillo noted how, due to the lack of communication regarding details of the investigation to the student body, most of her knowledge came from rumors.
“I expected the University to give us a concrete answer of what exactly happened,” she said. “I heard through other people their side of the story, but I never really understood how the chants or slurs started.”
Had the students been disciplined, McKnight believes Sewanee missed an opportunity to create a strong precedent to demonstrate the “…basic, minimum requirement of being not only a Sewanee student, but a decent human being.”
“I also feel as though sometimes people have forgotten and put it into the past of what happened. People make jokes on social media, but people are not continuing to have hard conversations publicly about what is happening,” McKnight said.
When asked about how this affected her role as a leader of an identity-based organization, Carrillo reflects on her freshman year.
“I was told that you’re going to have to stand up for yourself, but I never really understood the definition of that or what it really meant until this event happened,” Carrillo said, “There were no consequences for it…I realized what it meant to stand up for yourself and those around you. We need to talk to those deans who will back us up.”