BRUNSWICK, Maine — Ten days after new Bowdoin College President Clayton Rose convened a “town hall” to discuss race relations on campus, the Brunswick Town Council will on Monday consider creating a task force to address a reported increase in the number of racial and gender-based slurs being directed at college students around town.
Town Council Chairwoman Sarah Brayman said her proposal follows meetings of college and town officials throughout an unusually tense fall semester, during which student conversations and the weekly Bowdoin Orient focused largely on racial divides nationally and at Bowdoin, as well as the reported assaults of three women students near the downtown campus.
Plans to create the task force derive not from any impression by town officials that Brunswick is charged with racial bias, but rather from an effort to create a “zero-tolerance” policy, Brayman said Monday.
On Sept. 8, just days into the fall semester, Rose penned a memo to students about “a problem and a challenge for all of us.”
“Over the last few months several members of our community — students, student guests, staff and faculty — all persons of color — have been subjected to racial invectives of the worst kind,” Rose wrote. “These incidents have generally involved the “n” word being hurled by people in cars passing near campus and in town.”
Throughout the fall, student actions including protests and social media discussions have focused on racial and cultural differences at Bowdoin, which has made a concerted effort during the past decade to recruit a more diverse student population.
Brunswick has become less racially diverse since Brunswick Naval Air Station closed in 2011.
Bowdoin College spokesman Doug Cook said Monday that roughly one-third of Bowdoin’s students identify as people of color. In 2010, 93 percent of Brunswick residents reported they were white, with 3 percent Hispanic, 2 percent Asian and just less than 2 percent black, according to U.S. Census data.
Brayman said the task force is designed to foster understanding between town and college community members.
“I don’t for a moment want a Bowdoin student or anyone to feel fear or discomfort when walking into the downtown,” Brayman said Monday. “Brunswick is a community for all. I think the vast majority of people in Brunswick want that.”
‘General safety concerns’
The focus on improving racial relations spread beyond the campus boundaries, with Bowdoin officials reporting “a more persistent problem” to town officials. College and town officials met twice this fall after an initial “uptick” in racial incidents was reported.
Then, on Dec. 2, shortly after one student reported being sexually assaulted in college housing adjacent to the campus and another reported being grabbed on another street, town officials invited representatives of other organizations in town to a “roundtable” meeting to address the reported increase in slurs, as well as “general safety concerns in the downtown area and neighborhoods adjacent to Bowdoin,” Brayman wrote in the Dec. 17 memo.
Brunswick police continue to investigate the reported assaults, but have not yet made any arrests.
Brunswick Police Cmdr. Marc Hagan said Monday that police had taken only one report of a racial or gender bias incident in town since September. That report involved a Bowdoin student who reported that racial slurs had been yelled at her on Park Row, just off Maine Street, a few blocks from campus.
Since Rose’s Sept. 8 message, “A number of other instances have occurred in which racial or misogynistic slurs have been directed at Bowdoin and non-Bowdoin people” of a variety of ages, Cook wrote in an email to the Bangor Daily News on Monday.
Asked to clarify how many incidents of racial or gender bias were reported to Bowdoin security or administration this fall, Cook replied, “As I understand it, there were four cases of bias reported since late August. For that same period in 2014, there were none reported. It’s difficult to adequately characterize the issue based on these numbers, because some cases were observed by third parties but not been reported.”
Brayman said the task force would include either herself or vice chairman Steven Walker, along with two other councilors, as well as new Assistant Town Manager Derek Scrapchansky, whose role would include publicizing public hearings.
After hosting public forums and soliciting comment from the community, the group would report in six months on recommendations for the town “and other stakeholders,” according to Brayman.
Among the recommendations so far, Brunswick Superintendent Paul Perzanoski has proposed establishing “safe houses” in areas of the downtown, “where people could go in to get away or to report while [an incident] is still fresh in their mind, and they’d take down the information, call the police,” he told the Bangor Daily News on Monday. “And they’d be out of harm’s way.”
Brayman said the task force would be one way for the council to “play a facilitating role” in ending the incidents.
“It’s just gotten worse — it’s gotten nastier,” Brayman said. “This is unacceptable behavior and I’m not going to turn away from this. I want people to feel welcome in Brunswick.”