PORTLAND, Maine — A pair of University of Southern Maine students wearing “Ebola nurse” Halloween costumes last week triggered controversy when the attire first scared — then offended — other students at the school.
Idman Abdulkadir, a member of the student senate, was visiting with six friends at the Multicultural Center at the school’s Woodbury Campus Center in Portland on Friday when she said two students wearing the costumes walked by in a hallway.
“There was a dead silence in the room, and you could see it on everyone’s faces, we were all terrified,” recalled Abdulkadir, a Canadian national who is a junior at USM. “I was thinking the worst, and I know everyone else was thinking the worst, too. … We all thought the campus had become a control center.”
Before the night was over, university police were called to the campus center to sort out allegations of a confrontation between students over the costumes.
The two individuals wearing the costumes were nursing students attending a Halloween function held by the Student Nurses Organization, said Joy Pufhal, USM’s dean of students. The president of the organization did not immediately respond to an email seeking comment Tuesday afternoon.
Pufhal said her office has met with both the costume-wearing students and those who were offended by the outfits since the incident.
Abdulkadir and one of her friends each published blog posts and pictures detailing their experiences Friday night.
“[The nursing students involved] are very concerned about how they’re being portrayed online, and I think if they had the opportunity to do it all over again, for many reasons, they would have preferred that Friday went differently,” Pufhal said.
On that point, Abdulkadir agrees. She said after one of her friends confirmed that the passing students were just wearing costumes and not starting a quarantine of the space, “our fear turned to anger.”
A nurse who recently returned after treating Ebola patients in West Africa and reportedly is now under self-quarantine has ties to the University of Maine System — she lives with a boyfriend who is a nursing student at the University of Maine at Fort Kent — and Abdulkadir said she and her friends were talking about the connection just hours before they saw the nurse costumes.
“They thought this was an OK idea to wear [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] gear to an event and potentially cause widespread hysteria across the campus?” Abdulkadir said.
The group of friends asked Multicultural Center intern Leila Mohamed, a USM graduate with conflict resolution training, to approach the nursing students and “properly and eloquently” tell them the costumes were offensive, Abdulkadir recalled.
Abdulkadir said she and her friends were bothered that their schoolmates would make light of a virus that in its most recent outbreak has killed more than 5,000 people in West Africa.
“We were just trying to make them understand how they hurt our feelings,” she said. “We kept telling them that this is killing people and that’s why it’s so hurtful, why it’s so disrespectful to the families of the people who have been affected by this disease.”
Abdulkadir said she and her friends never demanded the nursing students take off the costumes, and walked away before things escalated beyond a simple disagreement.
So she said the group was surprised when a university public safety officer approached them in the Multicultural Center to question them about it.
“[The officer] said they told him they felt attacked,” Abdulkadir recalled. “The cop said, ‘This is not a race issue’ … but I think if we had been five young white women, they would not have felt threatened.”
Pufhal said no complaints have been filed against anyone involved in the incident at this point. She said she believes the nursing students “had no ill intent at all” in choosing the costumes.
“There’s an impression here that some of the decisions made on Friday night came from a place of racism, and certainly we’re open to hearing that and appreciating that possibility,” Pufhal said. “There’s more work to be done to make sure our campus is safe and welcoming to all of our students.
“We’ve got some work to do with helping students understand that we are taking this seriously and we do understand how this has impacted them and why it’s impacted them in that way,” she continued.
The dean of students said the university hopes to use the incident to inform students about how to make respectful choices on Halloween, which is Friday.
“I see so much opportunity here, as an educational institution, to educate people about how something that was done in the spirit of having fun can be perceived as disrespectful and offensive to others,” Pufhal said.
Ebola nurse and hazardous materials costumes have caused contention elsewhere in the country as the spread of the deadly disease has garnered media attention during the weeks leading into Halloween.
Online costume seller Brands On Sale is promoting both a men’s costume and women’s “sexy Ebola containment suit,” which reportedly has caused some backlash on the Internet.
Johnathan Weeks, Brands On Sale’s chief executive, told the New York Daily News his company has sold hundreds of the controversial costumes and defended the outfits.
“Halloween is supposed to be fun. It is supposed to be outrageous,” he told the newspaper. “People need to lighten up and have a sense of humor about this holiday.”
In another incident, New York police on Saturday asked a man in a hazmat costume who was standing outside the Harlem apartment of a doctor diagnosed with Ebola to move away from the area.