Implement Accountability Practices for Racially Charged Classroom Incidents at USC

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As a first year student in USC’s Doctorate in Educational Leadership program, an incident occurred that revealed a chasm between institutional policy and practice. It has now been over eight months since a student suggested women of color should be “sterilized” or “have their babies taken away at birth” as a response to a class exercise. The university has taken no effective steps towards resolving the incident, even after my myriad of efforts: I met with the instructor, spoke with the program director, filed a complaint with the title IX office, met with the ombuds, spoke with the assistant dean, created this petition, and met with the dean herself. 

Why am I still speaking out? Because this is bigger than a student making a racist comment or an instructor mishandling a situation. The school's failure to acknowledge the unethical magnitude of the statements speaks to an underlying communal acceptance of the dehumanization and objectification of black and brown women. 

The school’s response has been alarmingly passive, particularly when juxtaposed with the documentary "No Más Bebés" about Latina women sterilized at USC Medical Center against their will in the 1960s and 70s. 

The values students display in the classroom are likely to be the same values they will embody as working professionals, and thus one would hope an academic institution would reroute such deviation from morality, especially before awarding a doctoral degree. Race-relations training for faculty and students alike should be implemented, as well as effective protocol for handling incidents such as these. 

To be clear, I have nothing personal against the instructor or the offending students. I have gone through the proper channels and navigated the situation with respect and professionalism. My goal is simply for the school to uphold the values of its mission statement, which cites advocating for "historically marginalized groups."

It is my sincere hope the university will right this wrong, adhere to the promises of its mission statement, and ensure a welcoming learning environment for all. 

Gina Loring, Doctoral student, USC Rossier School of Education c/o 2021



Full Incident Description:
On September 5, 2018, in Dr. Hirabayashi's Learning 525 course, we were broken into small groups and instructed to input behavioral principles into a communally shared document to address listed problems. One problem was "Increasing the number of women of color who receive prenatal care," to which one group inputted the following suggestions: "Sterilize them" and "Take away their babies at birth." I immediately showed the instructor, who assured me it would be addressed. At the close of the exercise, the instructor opened the floor for discussion, at which time a white female student admitted she had written the comments and then deleted them, stating her group, which included her and two latinx women, did not “agree” with the comments, but had offered them as a possible solution, as that was their understanding of the exercise. 

I said I was stunned by the inappropriate and offensive nature of the comments, given the socio-historical context of sterilization and separating families as tools of oppression and genocide, as well as the saliency of current immigration policies separating children from their parents. Several other students also expressed their discomfort with the comments. A white male student defended the students who had written the comments, stating there was no ill intention and that he himself felt "attacked" by what I had said. The instructor took a diplomatic stance, stating she wanted to maintain a comfortable learning environment, repeatedly emphasizing that no one should feel blamed, and at no time condemned the statements. 

I met with the instructor prior to the next class meeting and respectfully requested she bring resolve to the incident by acknowledging the comments as inappropriate. She suggested we had different teaching styles and that she did not feel accountability had to be public to be effective. She then maintained the same egalitarian tone in the class session that directly followed, vaguely referring to the incident, but never addressing the statements directly, and then introduced the day’s lesson plan: a case study surrounding the disproportionately high pregnancy-related mortality rates of women of color. The incident was thus not only left without resolution, it was magnified.

The instructor's impartial stance set an accommodating tone for explicit racism and allowed students to shoulder the weight of upholding moral integrity in her classroom. Further, an opportunity was lost for the students who wrote the comments to self-reflect through critical thinking, thus countering the pedagogical intent of a Doctoral program. This incident was antithetical to Rossier's mission statement: "to improve learning opportunities and outcomes in urban settings, to address disparities that affect historically marginalized groups, and to teach our students to value and respect the cultural context of the communities in which they work." 

Requested Actions:
(1) an acknowledgement of the incident and a comprehensive articulation of the steps USC is taking to resolve the matter, (2) faculty professional development training surrounding Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the facilitation of race-based conversations, (3) a CRT workshop for the group members who wrote the comments and the student who defended them, (4) a corresponding assignment for the aforementioned students to be presented to the cohort illustrating their understanding of CRT as it relates to the incident, (5) a required course with a CRT centered curriculum during the first semester for all newly admitted students to the program, (6) ample framing of historical context and racial implications for case studies used in Rossier courses, 7.) accountability protocol established for racially charged classroom incidents.