SHERIDAN — Northern Wyoming Community College officials announced a wave of changes Thursday after Native American students were targeted in at least two racially motivated incidents earlier this fall.
But Lynelle Shakespeare, the mother of one of the victims, said that so far, “it’s all been talk” and that her daughter has been “declining” since someone wrote racial epithets on her dorm room door twice within a week.
“She’s thinking about leaving,” Shakespeare said of her daughter, Whisper SunRhodes, who’s a freshman at Sheridan College. “She keeps talking about it. ... She had so much enthusiasm. It’s declining.”
Meanwhile, the college is planning changes that include requiring keycard access to gain entrance to buildings and the possibility of adding security cameras. Dr. Paul Young, the president of the community college district that includes campuses here and in Gillette, said that Sheridan College would work with the Department of Justice to “evaluate and strengthen training for campus police and (the) Crisis Management team.”
Other changes include the establishment of a multi-cultural center, increasing funding for campus-wide diversity efforts, further working with tribal leaders on the Wind River and Crow reservations, and holding campus- and community-wide discussions about inclusion.
Young said he wanted to receive feedback from tribal leaders before the college moved forward with its plan. He plans to go to the Wind River Reservation at the end of this month.
“Speech that is meant to threaten, intimidate or tell someone, for any reason, that they don’t belong here, is not OK and has no place in a college or university,” Young said in a press conference announcing the plan. He noted that there have been racist incidents across the country, including anti-Semitic flyers posted on the University of Wyoming campus last week.
In late September, Whisper and her roommate, Braylee Armajo, returned to their dorm after a late-evening Walmart trip to find that someone had written “praire (sic) n——-” on a white board outside of their room. The two first-year students, both members of the Northern Arapaho tribe, went to their resident assistant that night, and police and other university officials became involved in the morning.
The two students left their dorm for the rest of the week. Shakespeare drove up to visit her daughter. On the following Monday, as the two roommates prepared to return to class, a second racial epithet was found on their door.
Less than two weeks later, another Native American student — a friend of Braylee and Whisper — had her car windows smashed. Young said it was unknown if the incidents are related.
The incidents sparked a firestorm. Young said he received calls from state legislators and tribal representatives from both coasts. Shakespeare said some of her family wanted to drive to the college and hold a rally. The college held a Native American appreciation day after the second incident was discovered. Braylee and Whisper were briefly escorted to class by a police officer and were eventually permanently moved to a new, suite-style dorm that had a bathroom inside of it.
There are 20 to 40 Native American students at Sheridan College, out of about 2,000 total attendees, Young said. A multi-cultural center — which the campus currently has room for — will give the students a place to “fall back and care for each other,” he said. A similar approach had worked for veterans on campus, and Young believed it could be successful here.
The changes — if entirely implemented after further consultation with tribal members — are sweeping.
“When this happened — I have to confess, you always are worried about the reputation of your school and your brand and all these things,” he said after the press conference. “There’s always something that’s an issue. ... But I got hit so hard from so many directions within 24 hours ... it caused all of us to start doing some digging and some looking and start asking some questions.”
“There are two camps,” he continued. “There’s ‘deal with it quickly and get on,’ and there’s ‘try to make systemic change.’ I have a good team that said, ‘Let’s try to fix this.’”
Standing against racism
Leah Barrett, the vice president for student affairs, said the college needed to create a culture where students and staff had the “capacity to stand up” to racism.
“We need to have Native American symbols, bulletin boards celebrating different cultures, safe-zone stickers on office doors,” she said at the press conference, which was attended by members of the college’s board of trustees, other college officials and at least two representatives from Native American tribes.
The college will also strengthen its program for minority and disadvantaged students, program director Joseph Aguirre said.
As the college works to prevent similar incidents from happening again, the fact for Whisper and Braylee is that the events did happen. Shakespeare said her daughter’s disposition has taken a dramatic turn from the “gung-ho” student who “was loving college life.”
“It’s not there anymore,” she said.
When Whisper first moved to Sheridan, Shakespeare was nervous. She didn’t want her daughter, who had never left home, to attend the school. She said she just had a bad feeling about it. Go to school in Billings, Montana, she told her.
But Whisper said no. It had to be Sheridan. That enthusiasm is ebbing, and it’s Shakespeare who’s urging Whisper to hang on.
“Don’t let them win,” she said.