Dozens of Protesters Arrested On Gallaudet President's Order

By Susan Kinzie and Michael E. Ruane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, October 14, 2006

Campus police arrested dozens of student demonstrators at Gallaudet University last night to reopen the famed college for the deaf after a three-day shutdown staged in a long-simmering protest over the appointment of a new president.

The arrests began shortly before 9 p.m., when police began carrying away students from a jeering throng that had been blocking the school's Sixth Street NE entrance. Students hollered and signed, "This is our school!" By early this morning, police said, about 80 had been arrested. Witnesses said many students were still awaiting arrest.

Teams of officers, acting on orders from President I. King Jordan and aided by interpreters in orange vests, picked up individual students, who went limp, and carried them to a D.C. police van.

The students were to be taken from the school, at 800 Florida Ave. NE, to a police training facility in Southwest Washington for processing, officials said.

The arrests brought to a head a bitter dispute that began in May between the administration and students angry about the appointment of then-provost Jane K. Fernandes as the university's next president. She is scheduled to replace Jordan, who is to step down in December.

Protesters expressed dislike for Fernandes, saying she was remote and divisive. They argued that other candidates, especially minorities, had been overlooked. And they called for her to step aside.

She has refused, saying she is the target of student extremists. And earlier yesterday, speaking to the protesters for the first time this week, she said: "This has gone on long enough."

About 7 p.m., Jordan announced to demonstrators at the school's main gate on Florida Avenue that they faced arrest if they did not disperse. "I deeply regret being forced to take this action," he said. "But the protesters have left me no choice."

Two hours later, after three warnings from campus Police Chief Melodye Batten-Mickens, arrests began at the Sixth Street entrance.

At the main gate, other students got word of the police action via text message. Some cried and embraced. Graduate student Ryan Commerson signed information to fellow students, telling them that demonstrators were being put in vans one by one.

"Dr. Jordan has gone and arrested his own students," Commerson said. "This means his legacy is gone."

Main gate protesters began organizing rides to pick up those who were arrested, and Commerson collected bail money from supporters who donated one-, five- and 10-dollar bills.

"I can't believe King [Jordan] would allow this to happen," Tom Holcomb of Fremont, Calif., a Gallaudet graduate whose two daughters, Tara and Leala, were among those arrested, said last night as he watched. "He was our hero."

Police officials said each of the students arrested would have to pay a $50 fine. It was not clear what academic punishment they might face.

This week's demonstrations, with students camped out in tents and sleeping bags, virtually halted all activity at the 1,800-student school and left the campus littered with trash and debris. The protest, festering since spring, has attracted on national publicity.

Students this week had been demanding that Fernandes negotiate. She had refused, saying she would talk when they dispersed.

Fernandes relented yesterday, emerging from a black sport-utility vehicle and, flanked by two security officers, addressing students at the main gate.

"For one week, deaf infants and children and youth up to grade 8 have not been able to go to school," she said, referring to the elementary and high schools for deaf students on the campus.

"For one week, our model high school has been closed. For one week, both undergraduate and graduate students have been denied their education. For one week, we have had no mail delivered. Deaf babies scheduled for hearing tests and audiology exams are not able to get on campus. Senior citizens who are hard of hearing and seek the services of our audiology clinic cannot get here.

"I am asking a small group of students to join me now for a conversation about reopening Gallaudet University without delay," she said. "I hope you will meet with me."

They did later, but students left disappointed.

"She is not willing to come halfway," said protest leader Delia Lozana-Martinez, explaining that Fernandes wanted to talk to the students only about opening campus. "It disappoints and disgusts me. I don't think it was productive at all."

The protest began in the spring with the search for a successor to Jordan. A group of black students complained that not enough attention was paid to diversity and that a strong African American former board chairman was passed over for weaker candidates. Many on campus objected to Fernandes, who was then provost, and when her appointment was announced, it sparked two weeks of demonstrations in May.

Since then, issues have simmered in the close-knit deaf community, and many people, with a wide range of complaints, have come together to demand a new president. Some say Fernandes has divided the campus; some say she has allowed racism and audism, discrimination against deaf people; some say she isn't a good symbol for the deaf community -- she was born deaf but did not learn American Sign Language until she was in her 20s.

Because Gallaudet is the only liberal arts college for the deaf, its leader has cultural importance far beyond that of most university presidents.

Fernandes's supporters, including Jordan and some faculty and staff members, say that she has led the creation of a wide-ranging diversity plan addressing some of the campus's most painful issues, that she has promoted improved academics at the 1,800-student school and that she has met with many on campus since May to talk about issues. Fernandes has said the debate is not about her but about deaf identity, as technology has been changing deaf culture.

"During the presidential search and selection process, the issues of audism and racism that have plagued the deaf community for centuries came to the forefront," Fernandes wrote in an opinion piece in today's Washington Post. "Long rumbling under the surface, they erupted like a volcano. I happened to be the person standing next to that volcano."

Staff writers Nelson Hernandez, Martin Weil, Clarence Williams and Hamil R. Harris contributed to this report.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company