B.I.R.S.T. team aims to keep the peace

Written by: Elizabeth Ballinger If a student or faculty member is a victim of (or a witnesses to) a crime motivated by racial, gender, ethnic, religious or sexual orientation bias, there exists a centralized team prepared to take immediate action in response to the situation. As part of BCC’s commitment to creating a safe, diverse and inclusive environment on campus, the Equity and Pluralism office, (EP) developed the Bias Incident Response and Support Team (BIRST). The team’s goal, according to Vice President of EP, James Bennet, is to respond to reports of suspected bias-motivated behavior and hate crime via investigation, disciplinary action, deferment to appropriate department or legal channels and support services for victims. “We want to create an environment in which students can focus on learning and not worry over their safety,” says Bennet. After reporting offenses that threaten immediate personal safety to the BCC Public Safety Department or the police, students or faculty are instructed to report bias incidents on campus to either the Vice President of EP, or the Dean of Student Services. BIRST then meets within 24 hours to assess the situation and determine the appropriate course of action. “Every situation is different,” Bennet commented. “Therefore, resolutions are going to be different.” Bias incidents, which include non-criminal speech and behavior towards another person motivated by prejudice, are usually examined on campus by the BIRST team. The suspected offender is investigated in accord with college procedures, taking into consideration the spectrum of evidence and the impact of the offense. Disciplinary action may be taken and is determined by procedures of college policy. Violent or intimidating behavior, however, constitute criminal offenses, and the incident will therefore be reported to the police through BCC Public Safety. In both instances, victims are the priority of BIRST’s agenda. The team aims to communicate with the victim early on and determine how their immediate safety might be addressed while the report is being processed and how their physical and emotional needs might be met. Crisis counseling, referral to medical and psychological health services, and information about the report procedure and policy are all part of the available services. Protection of the victim is further addressed by regulations that consider retaliatory action by the suspect as a separate and serious offense. The BIRST team was formed in Spring of last year, following a series of city council meetings wherein the ASG brought up several student concerns about BCC’s procedures for dealing with prejudice and bias behavior. Students had pressed the ASG to address the need for policies to handle such incidents and a central medium to deliver the process. The Equity and Pluralism office studied other two and four-year colleges, and through adaptation of their policies and structures, as well as assessment of BCC needs, the model for BIRST was formed. Representatives from several Campus departments, including Student Services, Public Safety, Equity and Pluralism and Human Resources, formed the BIRST team. Other departments and individuals were also projected to become involved as necessary. The proposal went to the college council and by the end of the quarter received emergency approval. During the last year, policies have continued to undergo revisions and the team plan to continue examining and building on policy. The ultimate goal of BIRST, by addressing the immediate needs of individual cases, is to uphold BCC’s commitments toward safety, inclusion and appreciation for students of all backgrounds and perspectives. “The more proactive we are about handling intolerant behavior and the more we make it clear through our policies and actions, that we highly value contribution from people of all races, classes, religions and sexual orientations, the less comfortable people who might otherwise discriminate will feel about acting on intolerant attitudes,” says Bennet. The college setting, he explains, is supposed to foster an inclusive environment for learning and involvement. Any action that disrupts this process damages that ideal and therefore must be handled swiftly. When asked if BCC’s vastly diverse student population is the reason such a program is needed, Bennet replies thoughtfully. He explains that the program was not created to respond to differences, as though diversity posed some kind of problem, but rather to preserve and heighten our collective value of enrichment through this element. “Our intention is to demonstrate that we intend to use our diversity of background and perspective to enrich our environment,” Bennet says. “We want students to understand that we honor our differences as advantageous rather than challenging.” You can find more information at http://www.bellevuecollege.edu/pluralism/birst/.