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Protesters Occupy Gallaudet Classroom Building

People entering and leaving Hall Memorial, the building protesters took over, go through security checks. Demonstrators want the board of trustees to reopen the presidential search.
People entering and leaving Hall Memorial, the building protesters took over, go through security checks. Demonstrators want the board of trustees to reopen the presidential search. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)

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By Susan Kinzie and Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 7, 2006

Hundreds of protesters took over the main classroom building at Gallaudet University on Thursday night and refused to leave yesterday, demanding that the board of trustees reopen the search for a president.

With trustees meeting on campus and celebrating outgoing President I. King Jordan, students pitched tents outside the entrances to Hall Memorial and blocked the doors. Inside, trash cans and desks held elevator doors ajar, and the floor was covered with sleeping bags, cans of energy drink and fliers that spread messages to the school for the deaf: "THE BOARD OF TRUSTEES WON'T LISTEN TO US!" and "DO NOT LET ANYONE IN."

When security officers arrived early yesterday, students said, they couldn't understand what officers were saying -- that officers gave orders without sign language and did not seem to understand that the protest was peaceful. Some people were injured when officers shoved their way through and used pepper spray, students said.

"A lot of people are scared," Leah Katz-Hernandez wrote on a neon yellow notepad, and some faculty members were in tears as they signed with students.

Communication with security staff is an emotional issue at the university. In 1990, a student died while being restrained by security officers; his hands were cuffed, so he couldn't use sign language.

The administration has denied that pepper spray was used and said that officers used sign language and that no students were hurt.

"We had a bomb threat that was called in to campus this morning," said incoming President Jane K. Fernandes, whose appointment in May touched off protests. "I understand it was confrontational, and the students were not willing to let [police] in." But officers had a responsibility to ensure that the building was safe, she said. She also said an officer was hit with a plastic bottle, which students denied.

"I couldn't understand. They grabbed me and ripped my shirt. I saw them grab another student by the neck," student Joey Kelly said through an interpreter.

"I said, 'This is a peaceful protest,' " Tara Holcomb recalled, adding that she didn't know there had been a bomb threat. An officer "twisted my arm and pushed me out of the way."

The concerns about communication problems with security officials are not new, Fernandes said, and are tied to the problems that she thinks are causing the dissent -- racism and "audism," which is discrimination against the deaf. They have hired some officers who are deaf, she said, but the perception remains that most cannot communicate with students.

The choice of the school's next leader has divided campus since the spring, prompting faculty no-confidence votes and protests last semester and continuing opposition by a coalition of faculty, students, staff and alumni. In a scene reminiscent of student takeovers of District universities in past decades, protesters barricaded doors and refused to compromise.

At some schools for the deaf elsewhere in the country, groups pitched tents and made signs supporting the Gallaudet protesters.

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