When videos and images surfaced on social media of racist actions by alleged Penn State students, many were outraged — and this outrage intensified when people learned the alleged students would not be receiving any disciplinary action.
When student members of Penn State Black Caucus, the State College NAACP and the University Park Undergraduate Association learned that yelling the N-word at a group of black people is not prohibited by the university’s Student Code of Conduct, they launched the “Change the Code” campaign, which aims to alter procedures for dealing with hate speech.
In May, a video circulated on Twitter in which the N-word can be heard yelled at Black Lives Matter protesters in Aston, Pennsylvania. The man who allegedly said the word is allegedly Penn State student Sean Setnick's father.
Setnick was in the car, and another video shows Setnick make a remark to protesters that some have said was a reference to the Ku Klux Klan. Setnick denied saying racial slurs in a statement to the Collegian, and said he was yelling "gang" to the protesters.
After viewing the video, the Penn State Black Caucus and State College NAACP immediately put out a statement calling for Setnick’s expulsion.
State College NAACP President Randi Youboty said the groups made the statement so the university would feel pressured to take action.
Although Penn State released a statement condemning racism, the university said it did not have the power to discipline Setnick because speech is protected under the First Amendment.
The university also stated that Setnick’s actions did not constitute harassment under the Student Code of Conduct.
Additionally, Penn State released a separate statement condemning alleged student Ryann Milligan, who allegedly appeared in a photo with a swastika drawn on her back. The university described the image as “deeply disturbing and sickening.”
UPUA Vice President Lexy Pathickal said she and other students leading the campaign came to a common conclusion.
“If [the alleged students] didn’t technically break student conduct because it wasn’t ‘pervasive’ or ‘severe’ enough,” Pathickal (senior-political science) said, “it seems like the code of conduct really isn’t serving us anymore.”
State College NAACP Vice President Tito Badejoko said the fact that the university could not discipline Setnick made black students feel unsafe and undervalued.
MORE CAMPUS COVERAGE
George Floyd’s death sparked a national movement calling for criminal justice reform — but t…
“It just felt for me like Penn State didn’t care,” Badejoko (senior-immunology and infectious diseases) said. “It’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, we get it, this hurt you, but his parents are paying tuition.’”
Pathickal said the Change the Code campaign is intended to garner student support for changing the Code of Conduct, as well as gauge general thoughts on it.
According to Penn State Black Caucus President Nyla Holland, the campaign generated significant enthusiasm.
“A lot of people have been receptive to [the campaign]. People who have never interacted with our organizations before — PSU Barstool has reposted it, the quarterback of our football team has reposted it,” Holland (senior-African American studies and political science) said.
Holland said the posts have had “thousands and thousands of likes” and “people DMing [the Black Caucus’s] page asking how they can get more involved.”
The campaign has not called for specific changes to the code, which Pathickal said is because they still don’t know the full range of legal options. The campaign hopes to work with Penn State administrators and lawyers to see how to best meet students’ needs while abiding by the First Amendment.
“The whole point [of the campaign] was to see what could be done, because right now there are plenty of black students, there are plenty of Jewish students who honestly do not feel safe coming back to campus in the fall if this kind of language is just okay,” Pathickal said.
However, Pathickal, Holland, Youboty and Badejoko were able to identify clear issues with the code, primarily its definition of harassment, which they claim is too vague.
According to the Code of Conduct, harassment includes “verbal or physical attacks, stalking, graphic or written statements, threats or slurs.” In order to warrant a violation, however, the harassment must be “severe or pervasive.”
The leaders of the campaign feel this definition fails to protect marginalized students on campus and gives students too much room to harass others without being disciplined.
MORE CAMPUS COVERAGE
Hundreds of protesters gathered in downtown State College throughout Sunday for the communit…
“Sean Setnick’s video, threats and slurs were exactly what he did,” Badejoko said. “He should have consequences for what he said. If it’s not expulsion, then it should be suspension. If it’s not suspension, it should be probation. There is a Code of Conduct, they’re just not enforcing it.”
According to Badejoko, a more strict definition is especially necessary because Penn State has a history of letting race-based harassment go unchecked.
“I remember when I went to the bathroom and there was a flyer advertising for a neo-Nazi rally,” Badejoko said. “And those were all over the school, but still Penn State said ‘Oh, it’s freedom of speech.’ Yeah, but their speech is calling for me to not be at this school. It’s calling for me to not be in Pennsylvania, not be in this country.”
Youboty (junior-biobehavioral health) added that Penn State often fails to punish students for breaking other sections of the Code of Conduct as well, though many of these issues go undetected.
“I feel like Penn State does not enforce the Code of Conduct unless they want to,” Youboty said. “Is it just there for fun? Is it just there so you can say you have it?”
In the campaign’s conversations with Penn State administration, Holland, Youboty and Badejoko said Penn State President Eric Barron seemed receptive to their concerns.
“I think [Barron] was pretty receptive, but we have to wait and see,” Youboty said. “If you don’t want students on your case, I guess you’ll be receptive to them.”
The Big Ten Conference has released the members of the newly formed Big Ten Anti-Hate and An…
In an email to students, Barron shared a list of actions the university would take to combat racism, which Holland said she appreciated.
The university has not yet released a timeline for when the Code of Conduct would be reviewed, but Holland said efforts to choose members of its review task force are currently underway.
Pathickal, Holland, Youboty and Badejoko all agreed the Change the Code campaign is just one reform working to combat racism at Penn State.
“This is an issue that isn’t a ‘Oh, we did one initiative and it’s done,’” Pathickal said. “It’s going to be an ongoing fight and it’s not going to end in one year.”
According to Pathickal, the next step for UPUA will be working with the Faculty Senate to mandate diversity training for all students and staff.
In addition to diversity training, Holland, Youboty and Badejoko said they want courses on racism, sexism and other forms of bigotry added to the general education curriculum.
Holland said she views these efforts as part of a larger set of changes to make black students safer.
The changes include fully funding and expanding black student organizations and university-funded spaces like the Paul Robeson Cultural Center, advertising events and opportunities from black student organizations, and investing in the Department of African American Studies.
Although efforts to fight racism at Penn State have been receiving more attention in recent weeks, Holland said black students have been advocating for these changes for years.
“Black Caucus, as well as other black students who aren’t in our organization, has been fighting to make the racial climate at Penn State better for decades and decades,” Holland said. “We will continue to be a part of this movement to add some meaning behind the ‘We Are’ in Penn State, because a lot of people are feeling like ‘We Aren’t.’”