On Nov. 9, student activist Carl DuPree was killed by campus security officers at Gallaudet University, where my daughter is a student. The case has been ruled a homicide.
Every day since, I have scanned the paper and listened to the evening news, waiting for an outcry that has not come. The student movement, which shut down the campus less than three years ago by its demands for a deaf president, is fragmented and uncertain. The underlying issues go unspoken, and all the mechanisms that led to this senseless death remain in place.
When he died, Carl DuPree was 41 and still seeking a college degree. His parents, his wife's parents, his wife and two of his four young children were deaf. For generations, members of both his and his wife's family had been deaf. DuPree was committed to making life better for all deaf people.
Last spring DuPree joined student leaders of a two-year-old protest against an English Department policy at Gallaudet and led a boycott of the English 50 exam. He and other deaf protesters did not dispute the importance of English language skills, but they also felt the standards of the English 50 exam were arbitrary and discriminated against the deaf people whose skills it was supposed to measure. Students are permitted to retake the English 50 exam and repeat the course as many as four times before being asked to withdraw from Gallaudet. It sounds reasonable, but look closer.
Faculty at Gallaudet face no similar language constraints. Even tenured professors are rarely fluent in American Sign Language, and new faculty frequently enter the classroom unable to communicate beyond a minimum exchange of greetings. Further, the test scores received at the end of the class determine the student's maximum grade. A teacher can lower a student's grade based on interaction during the semester, but no amount of effort or improvement can make a positive difference.
When DuPree went to the English Department to talk about justice, he knew that the difference between the C he believed he deserved -- and earned on the exam -- and the D he was given was a question of personalities and attitudes, not standards. He was outraged. The incident has been called a "grade dispute," but it was one man standing up to a ruthless system.
When DuPree was put off with the promise of yet another meeting, he stalked away, angry and frustrated, toward the Ely Center, where his wife and two of his children were waiting. He was intercepted by campus security as he entered the building. They blocked his path, their mouths yammering words DuPree could not hear. He tried to keep going. Then because the security people did not have the signing skills to communicate with him, they reverted to the sorriest of all options, force.
DuPree resisted. Six or more security officers wrestled him to the ground and cuffed his hands behind him. They "restrained" him, ignoring his screams, which even a deaf student who was there and told me this story could hear. With his wrists bound, some students say, DuPree finger-spelled again and again, "I can't breathe," "I can't breathe."
Is this truth or embellishment? Does it matter?
The officers held him until his legs stopped flailing. The university announced that death was due to an "apparent heart attack" and clung to that story throughout the next couple of days. Then the autopsy report said that DuPree died of asphyxiation caused by neck compression associated with a broken hyoid bone.
At the time of DuPree's death, The Post reported that minimum requirements for hiring at the university's Department of Safety and Security included three years of previous law-enforcement experience. After a seven-week orientation program, The Post said, officers are required to take two sign language classes in their first year of employment.
It is, however, unthinkable that two English courses would qualify a foreign-language speaker for security on a hearing campus, but this is the training of the officers who must investigate suicide attempts and question rape victims at Gallaudet. Who makes these rules? Not the deaf.
"Communications breakdown" is the term used to describe any misunderstanding between the deaf and hearing, the implicit understanding being that responsibility for communication belongs to the deaf. A friend of my daughter's told me she must sign her question three or four times over in one of her classes. Exasperated, the teacher snapped at her one day, "Use your voice. How do you expect to get along in the hearing world?" Long after the incident, my daughter's friend signed angrily, "I wish I had told her, this is a deaf school. We sign here."
Ironically, Gallaudet recently mailed out a new fund-raising appeal. On the envelope and across the front of the brochure are several frames of a young woman signing. The caption reads, "Only one university speaks my language." For now that's just lip service. -- Judith Treesberg The writer works for the Bicultural Center, which is a resource center for American Sign Language and American deaf culture.