Student suspension still controversial on Middlebury campus

07/14/05 12:00AM By Nina Keck
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(Host) About thirty percent of the students at Middlebury College are minorities. When they return to school this fall, many will still be talking about a controversial suspension last spring of an African-American senior.

College administrators say 21-year-old O'Neil Walker seriously violated the school's behavior code.

Walker - a scholarship student from the Bronx - says he was unfairly charged, and as VPR's Nina Keck reports, he's taking the school to court to try to get his diploma.

(Sound of tour)

(Keck) It's a hot summer day and Middlebury's picturesque campus is downright sleepy. Most of the undergrads are gone. But a small group of prospective students and their parents takes a tour.

(Jason Kowalski) "We've been a breakthrough college in a lot of things. Historically, we had the first African American who graduated from a college here. Emma Willard, the first woman to start a college for women started at Middlebury at the admissions house. That's why it's called the Emma Willard house."

(Keck) Alexander Twilight, the first African American to receive a degree from a U.S. college, graduated from Middlebury in 1823. The school takes great pride in its history of inclusion - a history that contrasts sharply with the controversy gripping the campus now.

(Murphy) "Even the fairest people, from their point of view, don't understand that they can be unconsciously racist."

(Keck) That's Billy Murphy, a civil rights attorney representing O'Neil Walker. Murphy says beginning last November, Middlebury's campus police reported a string of dormitory intrusions. Some of the alleged intruders were white, he says, some were black.

(Murphy) "These room intrusions ranged from being very innocent to being not innocent. So the campus picked out the ones involving black people, even though the victims could not identify any particular person who did it. And they charged O'Neil Walker with all five incidents. Grossly unfair."

(Keck) According to campus police reports, five students reported that someone entered their dorm room in the middle of the night. Four of the five witnesses told authorities the intruder was black. But only one of the five, a white Middlebury senior named David Hawkins, identified O'Neil Walker as the intruder. Walker says he didn't do it. He says he was only charged because he's black and points out that he looks nothing like the man David Hawkins described to campus police.

(Walker) "A light skinned male with hair one to two inches, high cheek bones who speaks with an African dialect. None of those things are me. And during the time of the incident I had my braces on. And none of that came up in the report."

(Keck) Campus police reports show that Hawkins pointed out the photos of three other African American students from a college face book, saying they resembled the intruder. Those three were found innocent. It wasn't until almost two weeks later, that Hawkins ran into Walker at a local store and identified him face to face. According to court documents, campus police felt Walker's alibis were inconsistent and that his movements on campus - as reflected by his student ID card - linked him to all five incidents. Allison Byerly is in charge of Academic Affairs at Middlebury College.

(Byerly) "The question of racial profiling I think is an inaccurate characterization of evidence presented that was considered compelling by two separate judicial review boards made up of a range of faculty and students who heard evidence and determined that there was a basis for identification that was not racial profiling, but was identification by a witness of an intruder."

(Keck) But Walker's friends remain unconvinced. They describe Walker as soft spoken and almost shy. The Jamaica native played clarinet in Middlebury's orchestra and competed on the school's cheerleading squad. The first in his family to go to college, he'd hoped to go on to law school. The disruption, says Walker, has been stressful.

(Walker) "I don't have my diploma, I don't have my degree. So right now everything's just on hold and I'm waiting for this thing to get taken care of. It's taken a heavy toll on my family."

(Keck) Rob Hawkins says the situation has also been difficult for his family. His son David was traveling in South America and was unavailable for an interview. But his father says his son stands by his testimony.

(Hawkins) "He never took this whole thing lightly. For David, the thought of convicting someone unfairly was far worse than identifying the intruder."

(Keck) O'Neil Walker understands identifications across racial lines can be difficult, especially, he says on a campus with few students of color. But he feels the college let him down. The room intrusions were causing a lot of anxiety on campus. Walker believes blaming a black male offered Middlebury an easy solution.

(Walker) "I feel that the administration and the department of public safety had pressure from the outside and they needed to find someone - regardless of whether that person was the right person. To say we have the issue under wraps. Feel safe to send your children here and continue to donate money to the college."

(Keck) That's not true says Marichal Gentry. The Student Affairs Dean oversees the judicial process at Middlebury.

(Gentry) "If I felt any student was being mistreated or hadn't received a fair hearing or the process of interviewing and public safety hadn't been inappropriate. I would have been the first person to stop it."

(Keck) Gentry, who's African American, says Walker's take on this really bothers him.

(Gentry) "I think my integrity was questioned, my role here was questioned and in some ways my blackness was questioned."

(Keck) Walker's lawyer, Billy Murphy, remains skeptical about the way Middlebury handled the room investigations and his client's hearings.

(Murphy) "And what makes it even more nettlesome is that they're in denial about it. They couldn't possibly be racist at this liberal arts college of great distinction. So they don't bother to question the flawed logic that they used to convict O'Neil Walker."

(Keck) Walker was attending school on a full scholarship - paid by Middlebury but awarded by The Posse Foundation - a highly competitive program that helps motivated students from urban high schools attend high profile colleges and universities. Debbie Bial, founder of the Posse Foundation, says she's sad about what happened to O'Neil Walker. But she trusts Middlebury to do the right thing.

(Bial) "We've been partners with Middlebury for over seven years. I know they're committed to diversity and I know they care very much how their students feel on campus. And I think Middlebury has been very committed to constantly improving the climate on their campus and we've seen nothing to contradict that."

(Keck) ReNard Rogers is another Posse Scholar at Middlebury. When hundreds of students rallied in May on Walker's behalf, Rogers joined in. But weeks after the demonstration, the sophomore admits he feels torn.

(Rogers) "Right now, I can basically tell you that it's really weird being at Middlebury because there are so many rumors going around so you really don't know what to believe. It's frustrating. To tell you the truth it just doesn't sound like either story is adding up."

(Keck) The college won't divulge details of the case because they say O'Neil Walker requested that the hearings remain closed and confidential. So, ReNard Rogers and the rest of the campus may never know what really happened. Middlebury officials say that if O'Neil Walker fulfills the terms of his suspension - taking a semester off, getting psychiatric counseling and reapplying for admission, they would welcome him back and continue to finance his tuition. Walker says he has no intention of admitting to something he didn't do. He's filed suit against the college in Addison County Superior Court. A hearing is expected later this summer.

For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Nina Keck in Middlebury, Vermont.
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