In Dialogues, a Time to Heal
The student arrests and ensuing controversy that rocked the Oberlin community last September have repercussions that are still being felt on and off campus. Just last week, charges were dropped against the students in question. Amid the furor, however, students and community members found a chance to heal.
College officials, representatives from the town, including Police Chief Tom Miller, and students held meetings on Friday, Feb. 15 as part of an ongoing dialogue facilitated by former United States Attorney for the Eastern District of Michigan Saul Green.
Chief Miller said he has learned a great deal from the discussions: “I think what surprised me most is the perception on campus of the city police department.”
Dean of Students Linda Gates described Miller’s commitment to up-to-date training for his officers as “unequivocal.” She said that, though the dialogue will not specifically address the arrests or charges of racism that students have brought against the police, the OPD is working on “deescalating incidents that can turn in a negative direction.”
Gates said that the dialogue group had little opportunity for input on the fallout from last semester’s arrests. “That investigation was underway,” she said, “and there was no way for us to be involved.”
City Manager Eric Norenberg felt that the meetings “have gone far beyond discussing any single incident and have looked really towards the future at how the city, the College and the community as a whole can work better together.”
In addition to Miller, Captain of Police Cliff Barnes, Norenberg, City Council President David Sonner and Barbara Mehwald of the Human Relations Commission have represented the town in these discussions.
Dean Gates, Ombudsperson Yeworkwha Belachew, Vice President of College Relations Al Moran and Director of the Multicultural Resource Center Eric Estes as well as a number of students, have been taking part in the dialogue on behalf of the College. Gates said that these students were recommended to the group and that many worked for the Oberlin College Dialogue Center: “All of these people were chosen for their demonstrated leadership ability.”
According to Gates, the outgrowth of the series of talks is the formation of two small working groups that are focusing on incorporating more communication with the Oberlin community into student life.
One group has sought to implement programs that would orient students to the wider Oberlin community.
Said Gates, “All students would be better prepared for the kind of community living they can enjoy,” in village housing as well as off-campus, where neighbors might “keep different hours” and have different expectations about behavior.
The revamped orientations will include information on city services and meeting new neighbors. OCDC will also host neighborhood lunches to help students get acquainted with community members.
Gates said that these efforts were meant to advise students of their role in this community, “and their role includes their rights and responsibilities.” She added, “If you do live off campus, Safety and Security is not going to be patrolling where you live.”
The second working group is focusing on a broader communication plan and will host a student forum to discuss town-gown issues in April. While the larger discussion group will not meet beyond the end of the school year, the working groups will continue their efforts, said Gates.