Students seek argument resolution

IUS Horizon

Erick Marquez, international business sophomore, speaks to the IUS Civil Liberties Union while Elizabeth Jackson, international studies junior, cries during his explanation. Marquez and Jackson were part of a verbal altercation on a university-sponsored trip.
Erick Marquez, international business sophomore, speaks to the IUS Civil Liberties Union while Elizabeth Jackson, international studies junior, cries during his explanation. Marquez and Jackson were part of a verbal altercation on a university-sponsored trip.

Students involved in a verbal altercation on the way back from a university-sponsored trip on Feb. 17 said they were disappointed with IU Southeast’s approach to resolving the conflict.

A heated argument escalated when Erick Marquez, international business sophomore, asked Rebecca Ward  if she would move from a seat so he could sit with his girlfriend, Irena Sokolova, on the way back from Hoosiers for Higher Education, a trip where students go to the Indiana statehouse to lobby for higher education issues.

After talking to IUS Police about the incident, a meeting was set up with some of the school’s administrators and 14 students who were either involved in or witnessed the argument. 

The meeting with Student Affairs

Marquez, a Venezuelan, said he was surprised the meeting focused on issues of race rather than misconduct.

“It should have been treated more professional with what rules were broken,” Marquez said.  “What about my side? I’m foreign, too. I’m not racist.”

Efforts were made to get comments from Ward, but she did not respond by press time.

Ruth Garvey-Nix, vice chancellor for Student Affairs, said she brought up the story of Rosa Parks at the meeting to try to give students perspective on how Ward and her friends, who are black, may have felt about the situation.

“Race or skin color might not have been an issue at all,” Garvey-Nix said. “But the African-American students may have had that on their minds.”

Garvey-Nix said no one was asked to sit in the back of the bus, but the fact the situation happened on a bus may have made the black students feel racist sentiments were involved.

Richard Young, political science senior, said he tried to help calm the argument before becoming involved and said he was upset about the Rosa Parks reference.

“I couldn’t believe it,” Richard Young said. “I thought it was pretty insulting. I thought it was insulting to Rosa Parks and the civil rights movement. It was about fighting oppression. These girls were the oppressors.”

Elizabeth Jackson, an international studies junior who hails from Peru, said she was also surprised at the tone of the meeting.

Jackson was on the bus and said she tried to keep the argument from coming to blows.

“I was expecting that we would be dealing with a case of misbehavior, not race,” Jackson said. “They were trying to imply that there was a racial issue, and there wasn’t.”

Richard Young said he thought the meeting with the administrators missed the point of the situation.

“For us, there was no racial issue,” Richard Young said. “It was about Erick [Marquez] and his girlfriend being verbally assaulted by these girls.”

Darlene Young, Affirmative Action officer and trainer, sat in on the meeting, and said she thought the situation was handled correctly.

“I wouldn’t necessarily say it was a racial issue,” Darlene Young said. “It was a breakdown in communication between the person who wanted the seat and who had the seat.”

She said Ward did give her seat to Marquez and Sokolova, but the lack of ground rules on the trip may have contributed to the misunderstanding.

“Without ground rules, people are kind of going to be left to their own devices,” Darlene Young said. “I think Dr. Garvey-Nix made it very clear that she accepted responsibility for that.”

Darlene Young said many of the students involved, including Richard Young, Marquez and Jackson, were members of the Student Government Association. She said she hoped to see a different reaction from them.

“I think we’re all human and we have breakdowns in communication,” she said. “What I would have liked to have seen was the leaders come together and come up with some kind of plan. That’s what we do, we develop leaders.”

Marquez said he was disappointed with the lack of disciplinary action taken, even if he might have been affected by such a decision.

Garvey-Nix said it would have been difficult to pursue punishment on any of the students due to the lack of cohesive reports and evidence on the incident.

“Of the 14 students I talked to, I probably got 14
different stories,” Garvey-Nix said. “I’m not surprised there was such variation in the descriptions.”

Darlene Young said she thought Garvey-Nix made a good judgment in regards to disciplinary measures.

“I’m sure each of the 14 students didn’t want her to come down with a blanket sanction,” Darlene Young said. “I think she was very fair in the way she handled the situation.”

Garvey-Nix said rather than placing blame and issuing punishments, she tried to use the situation as an educational opportunity.

She also said rumors of a physical fight aren’t true.

“It’s sort of developed a life of its own where people think it erupted into a brawl,” Garvey-Nix said. “That didn’t happen.”

After the meeting, Marquez said he felt the issue still wasn’t resolved. He said getting students’ perspectives on what happened would be more effective to resolve the issue, rather than asking what could have been done differently.

“I would like everyone to give their opinions,” Marquez said. “That’s how these things get solved.”

Richard Young said he also felt a solution wasn’t reached.

“I feel like there was more the university could have done here,” he said. “Elizabeth [Jackson] was in tears at the end of it. It turned into the rest of us having to defend ourselves about us not being racist.”

Accounts from the bus

Seuth Chaleunphonh, dean of Student Life and an adviser on the trip, said he tried to help calm the students engaged in the argument. He said the trip had a record turnout this year and for the most part, students represented IU Southeast very well.

He said with all of the positive sides of the trip, the actions of some of the students were unfortunate.

“We were exercising our practice of democracy to talk to representatives, and that’s the key thing, to talk,” Chaleunphonh said. “It’s regrettable with their choice of words sometimes.”

He said he addressed students on the bus after arriving at IU Southeast that evening, saying he was glad the situation didn’t escalate any further than it did.

Marquez said he thought Chaleunphonh’s response on the bus was inadequate and he should have done more to try to resolve the conflict.

“If you’re going to solve something, you have to solve it in the moment with both sides,” Marquez said.

Marquez said he thought Chaleunphonh’s response was too slow.

“There weren’t any rules on the bus,” Marquez said. “I know we’re all adults, but that argument lasted five minutes before he said anything.”

Johann Pedolzky, political science and philosophy senior, said he tried to break the argument apart, calm students down and Chaleunphonh was right behind him on the way to the back of the bus.

“It escalated quickly,” Pedolzky said. “Both parties were standing up and in each other’s face, which is pretty much the universal sign for ‘we’re ready to fight.’”

Pedolzky said he became aware of the situation before Chaleunphonh and the other adviser, Kathy Meyer, coordinator of New Student & Leadership Programs, because he was several rows closer than either of them.

Pedolzky said he got involved because he wanted students to be safe on the trip.

“I didn’t want anybody to get hurt,” Pedolzky said. “I didn’t want an altercation on the bus and I didn’t want a fight to break out over something as small as this.”

Richard Young said he didn’t think Chaleunphonh’s immediate response was anything he could criticize.

“[The advisers] aren’t high school teachers,” Richard Young said. “I really don’t blame this on them. We all could have done something better. They treated us like adults.”

Young said he was, however, surprised with the way Ward reacted to Marquez. He said he helped her sign up for the trip the day before and she seemed like a very calm, quiet person.

“I was shocked,” Young said. “It was like night and day. She seemed real nice, but on the way back, she was completely different. I was really disappointed.”

Pedolzky said he thought Chaleunphonh’s statement at the end of the trip was unnecessary and he was concerned about the way the university has handled the situation so far.

“I just think this should be a safe learning environment,” Pedolzky said.

“I just think something needs to be said. Obviously, the student population knows about this and I think to downplay this is quite erroneous.”

Subsequent action

Garvey-Nix said she thought the administrators could have been more proactive to take steps to minimize another incident like this on university-sponsored trips.

She said in the future, a session might be held to let students get to know one another before the trip.

“You might be asked to sit with a complete stranger,” Garvey-Nix said. “For some people, that might be comfortable. For others, it might not.”

Garvey-Nix said such a session would allow students to become more comfortable with one another.

Marquez and Jackson presented their case to the IUS Civil Liberties Union on March 5, along with Richard Young and Josh Sesar, math sophomore, another witness to the argument.

They talked with the group to see what they should do next, if they could do anything.

Jackson said after the Student Government Association meeting on March 5, Chaleunphonh approached her and said the entire issue should be dropped.

“I’m just overwhelmed with what Seuth had to say after SGA today,” Jackson said. “I can’t believe he had the audacity to say we should just drop it. I want to see if the school’s going to do anything or not.”

After discussing the incident with the IUS CLU, several members tried to come up with a plan to bring the concerns back to the university’s administration.

Tom Kotulak, associate professor of political science and faculty adviser for the IUS CLU, said the information they received from Marquez and Jackson was incomplete and needs to be expanded.

“The students need to put together a more complete dossier of information and seek whether the university is willing to review that information and settle this in-house,” Kotulak said. “That’s how this should be done.”

Darlene Young said she’s open to hearing subsequent concerns about the incident.

“I’m not a person who’s going to take sides,” she said. “I’m going to get everybody’s story and make a recommendation. I’m going to investigate.”

Darlene Young said any student is encouraged to continue with a grievance process and the university would be willing to look into the issue.

“If they have a legitimate case, I don’t see why they wouldn’t,” she said. “I’d  be curious to see what they want, though.”

She said the grievance processes for students are clearly outlined on the university’s Web sites for Equity and Diversity as well as Student Affairs.

Pedolzky, who is also the vice president of the IUS CLU, said the group didn’t get the whole story, but thought everything that happened after the bus incident was handled inappropriately.

“We’ve only seen one side of the story,” Pedolzky said. “My concern is the lack of input, one way or another, from the administration. I feel the university’s trying to sweep this under the rug because they all-too-often do.”

Pedolzky said whatever course of action is taken and whatever resolution is reached, the students should end up feeling safe on campus.

“I think both groups should feel comfortable coming to this campus, especially since they’re trying to make this a more community-based campus,” Pedolzky said. “I’ve talked to all of [the students involved], and I think they’re all reasonable people.”

Senior editor