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.
The leaders of the National Association of the Deaf issued an open letter saying the campus is "in crisis" and asking the board to exercise leadership and for the university to "immediately cease any confrontational tactics toward campus faculty, students, and staff."
Thursday, protesters threatened more dramatic action if the board did not meet some demands by 10 p.m. They marched to a reception celebrating Jordan, who will step down at the end of this year, and tried to get inside. Then they blocked all the entrances to Hall Memorial and sent text messages at 1:30 a.m. yesterday: "Three hundred students have locked themselves in HMB . . ."
A warning from the administration that any steps necessary would be taken to restore order and that District police could be called in to remove dissenters flashed on students' pagers yesterday morning. Soon afterward, campus security officers began stretching yellow tape around the building. Inside, students and professors were tense, signing to each other and tapping out messages on pagers with no sound but the squeak of sneakers on tile as people ran to alert others. Hours passed without further incident.
Classes were moved or canceled -- including Fernandes's freshman seminar.
Trustees, who were on campus for the last scheduled meeting before Fernandes becomes president in January, abandoned their agenda and went into closed session yesterday, meeting with students late in the afternoon.
Early in the evening, board Chairman Brenda Jo Brueggemann and Jordan issued a statement saying that they look forward to Fernandes's tenure as president and that they would not negotiate on demonstrators' demands that they reopen the search process and ensure no reprisals for protesters.
Fernandes said she is the only one who can lead the school into the future and make it more inclusive for all types of deaf people. "I don't think there's anyone on earth who knows the issues better than I do. I've been living in it. . . . I know there's audism here. I know there's racism here. I know it happens, and more importantly, I have a plan to address it."
Last night, four student leaders, including Holcomb and student government President Noah Beckman, said they will withdraw from Gallaudet.
Staff researcher Karl Evanzz contributed to this report.