Peabody’s black students report discrimination

By SABRINA ABRAMS | April 25, 2019

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The Peabody Institute in Mount Vernon.

DADEROT/PUBLIC DOMAIN

When Clifton Guidry III, a black Peabody Institute alum, experienced a seizure during orchestra rehearsal as a student, he was met with suspicion. 

“Security, instead of seeing if I was having a medical emergency, was trying to ask if I was on any drugs,” Guidry said. “I was just really sick.”

Black students at the Peabody Institute face instances of racial stereotyping and discrimination like this on a regular basis. They point to a lack of diversity in both Peabody’s student body and faculty as a possible reason. 

According to the Peabody website, only eight percent of the Institute’s undergraduate population is black as of the 2018-19 academic year.

Over the past semester, The News-Letter attended several Peabody Black Student Union (BSU) meetings with the permission of BSU members. Students at the meetings alleged that Peabody’s Office of Student Affairs had treated black students unfairly, making the campus climate unwelcoming to minority students.

The BSU alleges that though they have informed the Student Affairs office of their experiences with discrimination and mistreatment, Student Affairs did not pass the complaints along to other offices or disciplinary bodies. On Jan. 29 the group filed a complaint against Student Affairs with the Office of Institutional Equity (OIE). 

BSU members added that the Student Affairs office has discriminated against them. They identified Director of Student Affairs Kyley Sommer and Coordinator for Student Leadership and Involvement Colleen Strauch as specific members of the office with whom they have had issues.

The News-Letter reached out to the Peabody Student Affairs office for comment regarding the allegations on Sommer, Strauch and Associate Director for Residential Life Daniel Pretz. The Student Affairs office stated that none of the accused administrators would be available for comment. Sommer is out of the office on maternity leave and did not respond to The News-Letter’s request for comment as of press time.

BSU Co-President Alex D’Amico explained that she and other black students have filed complaints with the Student Affairs regarding students and professors using racist slurs against them. She asserted, however, that administrators never reprimanded students or passed the complaints along to the proper channels. 

D’Amico also detailed various institutional concerns she and other BSU members had with the Student Affairs office. According to her, the office tends to group all of the black Peabody students together and consistently refuses to take any blame for discriminatory incidents. She added that upper-level Peabody administrators also failed to hold the Student Affairs office accountable for their mistakes. 

“Our main issue isn’t exactly with OIE. We’ve been led to believe that we should report through Student Affairs to Peabody. But things we’ve reported — like other students using the n-word, for example — Kyley Sommer hasn’t filed those reports with OIE or any office up at Homewood,” D’Amico said. “There’s a big disconnect between Peabody and OIE.”

Peabody Director of Marketing and Communications Tiffany Lundquist sent The News-Letter a statement in response to the allegations. According to the statement, Student Affairs intends to address the concerns that the BSU has raised and has met with its members to determine the best steps moving forward. 

“We identified several areas for improvement and will be meeting again this semester with the Black Student Union to provide updates on our progress and plans in those areas; a representative of the University’s Office of Institutional Equity will join us in that conversation,” the statement read. 

D’Amico described one of the incidents that led to the OIE complaint. She explained that though BSU had already secured a room to meet in for the semester, Strauch responded that they would not be able to use the room because the Office of Residential Life (ResLife) had claim to it. 

In response, a Resident Advisor (RA) who is also a BSU member asked ResLife to verify the room’s availability. According to D’Amico, ResLife said the room was in fact available.

When D’Amico approached Strauch with this information, Strauch allegedly responded that she had “other priorities than the black students at this school.” 

D’Amico subsequently reported Strauch to OIE. She added that Strauch then told other students that D’Amico had reported her, breaching the confidentiality agreements that are supposed to shield OIE complaints. 

“She told other students that she was close to, ‘Oh, I can’t believe Alex reported me to OIE,’” D’Amico said.

In contrast, D’Amico asserted, Strauch maintains confidentiality for her white students.

“For example, if there was an incident of racism that happened, and I went to her for a follow-up to see if it had been taken care of, she would immediately say that the other white student has a right to privacy and confidentiality so she can’t tell you if it’s been taken care of or not,” D’Amico said. 

She further reported that Sommer and Strauch treated students poorly when they went above the Student Affairs office and complained to administrators such as Associate Dean for Enrollment and Student Life Townsend Plant. She said that Sommer and Strauch did not hide their bias when they felt undermined.

D’Amico added that though the majority of the Peabody administration was supportive of improving the black student experience, Student Affairs officials were a significant roadblock. 

“You go to Dean Plant and Dean [Fred] Bronstein and they’re like, ‘Okay, we want to see this change — what do you need?’ So it’s clear where the disconnect is. They do want things to get better for us, but you have this disconnect in this one office,” D’Amico said. 

She added that the lack of oversight of Student Affairs enables the office to put minimal effort into projects that should have been given more extensive thought.

“I asked [Strauch] if she would be open to having someone from OMA and OIE sit down with us and go through all the policies that she writes on her own and make sure they’re all inclusive,” D’Amico said. “But she really just didn’t want to do the work.”

D’Amico added that when she pressed Strauch on setting up this discussion, offering to organize the initiative herself, Strauch reportedly continued to resist. 

D’Amico asserted that this incident was characteristic of the office culture at Student Affairs, where she felt that officials did not put in as much work as they needed to in order to adequately perform their jobs.

“There’s an issue with them having this level of comfort… they don’t think they have to put critical work into a lot of these things,” D’Amico said. “They do a lot of things that are tone-deaf and lazy.”

Furthermore, she noted that if a black student went to Student Affairs with a complaint, the office took their anger out on all black students at Peabody. 

“If we go to Hopkins or we go over their head to any other part of the school, if we go straight to Townsend, they get really upset and they think we’re deliberately undermining them. As a result, they end up treating all the black students worse,” D’Amico said. “For example, if I go to OIE, and Colleen gets mad at me, she’s now mad at all the black students.”

Clifton Guidry III, a Peabody Class of 2018 alum, could not fully disclose the details of his experiences because he ultimately filed a report against his studio teacher through OIE. He did explain, however, that any time discriminatory incidents occurred, Student Affairs would never reprimand the students or faculty members responsible. 

Guidry added that this set a negative example and made other Peabody students believe that they could discriminate against black students without facing any consequences.

“When a racist incident happened in my studio, [my studio teacher] would never report it, and he was a mandated reporter as a faculty member. [Student Affairs] would say ‘come to us’ and then you would tell them and there would be no reprimanding at all,” Guidry said. “It’s a never-ending cycle of pain, of never getting anywhere.”

Guidry also highlighted the ways in which the racial discrimination manifested itself in stereotypes. He noted that his studio teacher often associated blackness with poverty, so every time Guidry was traveling home to visit his family, his teacher would question him on his financial capacity to do so. 

Guidry further asserted that Student Affairs was unresponsive and inaccessible. Sommer, he explained, was never present on campus and did not make time to help students. 

Guidry also stressed concerns with Associate Director of ResLife Daniel Pretz. Guidry stated that when Pretz was hired in 2016, he tweeted about a racist incident at a University of Oklahoma fraternity and made statements like “everyone does that” regarding the usage of racial slurs. The News-Letter asked Lundquist to comment on this incident, but she declined to comment on any specific incidents. 

Guidry noted that the sentiment in Pretz’s tweets was reflected in his actions toward black students at Peabody.

“He was just never any help with the black students,” he said.

When an argument between him and a white student escalated, Guidry stated that the white student said something along the lines of “We’re in Baltimore, I’m the minority” to him. 

According to Guidry, Pretz then allowed the white student to continue being insensitive at a meeting held to discuss that incident. Guidry noted that the meeting about the racist incident was held with all white people, and he was the only black person in the room. 

“It’s really not a great environment for black students, knowing that someone is okay with white people using racial slurs,” Guidry said. 

D’Amico explained that this climate in which black students felt unwelcome was exacerbated by international students, who often had not encountered a black person prior to arriving at Peabody.

She said that international students consequently treated them insensitively. D’Amico stressed that she did not fault these international students, and that their ignorance stemmed from limited programming. 

“There’s no resources being offered to these students to try and help them understand that we’re not dirty, there’s a lot of people who just assume their black roommates are dirty or just don’t know what to make of them,” D’Amico said. “That can be really isolating.”

She went on to specify incidents where such students made the culture at Peabody isolating for black students. 

“I had a girl reach over and touch my hair once during a rehearsal — no one’s told them that’s not okay, and it’s not fun to be someone’s first-ever… black person that they meet,” D’Amico said. “A huge part of our day is making sure we’re safe around people who just really don’t know how to treat us, what to say to us or how to think of us. It’s not their fault. It has to do with what resources are provided to them in terms of education, and the exposure they’re seeing in this school.”

Recently, the BSU has worked with Peabody administrators in order to establish increased access to counseling and therapy services to improve the mental health of black students on campus. 

“This group’s work and recommendations have led to important new initiatives at Peabody, including MicroTriggers Workshop training for all managers, sponsored by the JHU Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Other key efforts at Peabody have included the Faculty Diversity Initiative, the Peabody Institute Diversity Fund, and the recent development in partnership with the JHU Counseling Center of a discussion group for black students at Peabody,” the Student Affairs statement reads. 

In their statement, the Student Affairs office also emphasized that diversity among both faculty and students had increased, citing the Faculty Diversity Initiative and the Peabody Institute Diversity Fund.

“The 2018-19 academic year sees the most diverse faculty in Peabody’s history, with ten percent of the faculty being underrepresented minorities (up from 6.5 percent only a year ago). Likewise, our 2018 incoming Conservatory class represented a 36 percent increase in underrepresented minority students from three years ago, increasing minority representation to 13 percent of our current student population overall,” the statement reads. 

D’Amico expressed her appreciation for the work that Plant and Bronstein have done to increase black representation at the school through student scholarship initiatives and hiring more black faculty. 

Graduate student Kasey Cwynar-Foye noted that there had been racially charged incidents with older faculty members. 

“It’s a little more difficult with the older faculty, using perhaps not ‘woke’ terminology,
 Cwynar-Foye said. “There’s just that disconnect. I know that a few teachers have said some things that were maybe not appropriate and were not taken too kindly.”

Guidry appreciated the work that certain faculty members have done to support black and underrepresented students at the school. He added, however, that their work was inhibited by administrators and pointed to systematic discrimination throughout the Peabody hierarchy.

“There were faculty members of color that really had our backs. But when they would go to admin, admin would stop them as well,” Guidry said. 

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