After Charlottesville, students worry about safety on campus

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A woman attends a candlelight vigil for Heather Heyer at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville

A woman attends a candlelight vigil for Heather Heyer following last Saturday’s protest organized by white nationalists that turned deadly at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S. on August 16, 2017. Picture taken on August 16, 2017. Photo courtesy of Tim Dodson/The Cavalier Daily/Handout via Reuters

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Virginia — When Carl Valentine dropped off his daughter at the University of Virginia, he had some important advice for the college freshman: Don’t forget that you are a minority.

“She has to be vigilant of that and be concerned about that, always know her surrounding, just be cautious, just be extremely cautious,” said Valentine, 57, a retired military officer who now works at the Defense Department.

As classes begin at colleges and universities across the country, some parents are questioning if their children will be safe on campus in the wake of last weekend’s violent white nationalist protest here in Charlottesville, Virginia. School administrators, meanwhile, are grappling with the difficult question of how to balance students’ physical safety with free speech.

Friday was move-in day at the University of Virginia, and students and their parents unloaded cars and carried suitcases, blankets, lamps, fans and other belongings into freshmen dormitories. Student volunteers, wearing orange university T-shirts, distributed water bottles and led freshmen on short tours of the university grounds.

But along with the usual moving-in scene, there were some visible signs of the tragic events of the past weekend, when white nationalists marched through campus holding torches and shouting racist slogans. The protest turned violent last Saturday, when a car drove into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one woman and injuring 19 others.

Flags flew at half-staff outside the Rotunda, the historic building designed by university founder Thomas Jefferson. A statue of Jefferson was stained with wax from the candlelight vigil held earlier in the week by thousands of students and city residents in a bid to unite and heal. Some student dormitories had signs on the doors reading, “No Home for Hate Here.”

UVA President Teresa Sullivan began her address to students and families by welcoming “every person of every race, every gender, every national origin, every religious belief, every orientation and every other human variation.” After the speech, anxious parents asked university administrators tough questions about the gun policy on campus, about white supremacists and the likelihood of similar violence in the future.

For Valentine, of Yorktown, Virginia, the unrest brought back painful memories of when, as a young boy, he couldn’t enter government buildings or movie theaters through the front door. “We’ve come a long way, but still a long way to go for equality.”

His daughter Emilia Valentine, an 18-year-old pre-med student, is more optimistic.

“It was scary what happened, but I think that we as a community will stand together in unity and we’ll be fine,” she said.

Christopher Dodd, 18, said he was shocked by the violence and initially wondered if it would be safe for him to attend UVA.

“Wow, I am going to be in this place, it looks like a war zone,” Dodd, a cheerful redhead, remembered thinking. “But I do think that we are going to be all right, there is nothing they can do to intimidate us. I am not going to let them control my time here.”

Others feel less confident.

“As a black man, as a black student I don’t know if I can really say that I am safe,” lamented Weston Gobar, president of the Black Student Alliance at UVA. He says he’ll warn incoming black students not to take their safety for granted. “The message is to work through it and to recognize that the world isn’t safe, that white supremacy is real, that we have to find ways to deal with that,” Gobar said.

Terry Hartle, president of the American Council on Education, said colleges are in the process of reassessing their safety procedures. “The possibility of violence will now be seen as much more real than it was a week ago and every institution has to be much more careful.”

Such work is already under way at UVA.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Sullivan said the university will be revamping its emergency protocols, increasing the number of security officers patrolling the grounds and hiring an outside higher education safety consultancy.

“This isn’t a matter where we are going to spare expense,” Sullivan said.

Hartle said some universities may end up making the uneasy decision to limit protests and rallies on campus and not to invite controversial speakers if they are likely to create protests.

“There is no easy universal answer,” said Hartle. “There is an overarching priority to protect the physical safety of students and the campus community.”

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Sigal Ben-Porath, a University of Pennsylvania education professor who has written a book on campus free speech, said universities’ key mission is to serve as platforms for discussion and debate. “The goal of supporting dignity and diversity and inclusion is so that we can have an open and free conversation.”

At the University of California, Berkeley, Chancellor Carol Christ said campus authorities were working to protect free speech and public safety during a rally near campus scheduled at the end of the month and a proposed speech next month by former Breitbart editor Ben Shapiro.

Student body presidents from over 120 schools in 34 states and Washington, D.C., signed a statement denouncing the Charlottesville violence and saying college campuses should be safe spaces free of violence and hate.

Ohio State University junior Andrea Gutmann Fuentes said she now worries that she and fellow members of a socialist group on campus could be physically attacked while peacefully promoting their views.

“We’re coming to a point where I think we’re going to see more physical violence being enacted upon people with leftist views,” said Gutmann Fuentes, a 20-year-old linguistics student from Cincinnati who identifies as Latina.

She said she thinks far right groups have been emboldened by the election of Donald Trump.

“That’s definitely a cause of fear for a lot of students on campus, students who already have been marginalized, and I think that something like this probably heightens those fears a lot,” Gutmann Fuentes said.

She’s hopeful that students returning to campus will be emboldened, too, to speak out and fight bigotry and hate.

“I do think that that is a thing that is going to continue to happen unless we stand up against it,” she said.

Associated Press writers Sally Ho, Jocelyn Gecker and Kantele Franko contributed to this report.

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