DHRC meets with students

Ana López, Managing Editor

On April 28, the Decorah Human Rights Commission met in the Mott Room instead of their normal venue in City Hall to listen to Luther students share their experiences regarding bias and discrimination.

This change in venue was prompted by the opinion piece by Chips News Editor Kelao Charmaine Neumbo (‘22) titled “An open letter to people who like slowing down their cars to yell things” published in the Vol. 141, issue number 18 of Chips, where she describes how she and her friends were harassed on their way to an ice cream parlour.

Chair of the Decorah Human Rights Commission Melissa Koch who led the meeting explained the commission’s reason for having their meeting at Luther.

“I think one of the reasons I wanted to have this [meeting] together is that I wanted to tell people who wouldn’t normally hear this, to hear this, to be here, [and] to be a witness to it because it happens every single day to people,” Koch said.

The Decorah Human Rights Commission was formed in 2005 and is one of the 14 boards and commissions listed in the City of Decorah Government and Services  website. According to their website, the DHRC’s mission is to “increase community awareness and appreciation of human diversity through educational programs and to investigate alleged claims of discriminatory practices and provide appropriate remedies where discrimination has been found to exist.”

The commission is composed of seven members, five of which were present at the meeting on Monday: Patrol Officer Brent Parker, Luther’s Interim Dean for Equity and Inclusion Lisa Scott, Tiffany Macklin, Koch, and Carol Hemesath.

The commission set two items in the agenda: the first half would be devoted to listening to testimonies from Luther students who have experienced bias and discrimination in the city of Decorah, and the second half was dedicated to discussing the National Day of Prayer.

Seven Luther students from various identities and backgrounds shared their experiences with bias and discrimination in Decorah. These experiences included being on the receiving end of anti-Black racist slurs, harassment, being followed around stores, being discriminated because of their accents or because they were speaking a language other than English, xenophobia, and Islamophobia.

Diamond Jenkins (‘19) shared her experiences as a cashier at an establishment in Decorah, where she deals with discrimination in the form of stares and comments about her identity as a Black woman. Jenkins said that she avoids reporting this to the Decorah Police or interacting with law enforcement because she feels she might be treated with bias.

“I don’t want to come in contact with the Decorah Police because they might assume that I am doing something wrong for no reason,” Jenkins said. “It’s just because of the experiences that I have been told about. I don’t even have to come in contact with them myself. [Based on] what I’ve been told about [them,] they don’t seem like the friendliest people.”

Most of the students that spoke at the meeting expressed a similar fear and feel uncomfortable with reporting these incidents to the Decorah Police. During the meeting, Jenkins said that she appreciated the presence of law enforcement at the commission and hoped to see more initiative from the Decorah police to keep students safe.

Scott explained how she has a double roll as a member of the commission and as a part of the Luther community. During the meeting, she highlighted her commitments to the Luther students and said that the goal of the meeting was to create strategies to increase students’ safety.

“We will come back with strategies and concrete actions to make sure that the first thing is that you are safe and that there is zero tolerance in this town for such behaviour,” Scott said. “Zero.”

One of these strategies is the implementation of a bias incident reports available for students and community members to report these incidents to the Decorah Police.

“One of the things that we have become aware of is that there is no mechanism in town to report when you have a particular experience,” Scott said. “How do you capture that, who do you tell it to? Is there a database for bias incidents in town? And if there is, you should be informed that there is.”

Patrol Officer Brent Parker has been part of the commission for approximately a year. He decided to join the commission through personal initiative but he says that he often acts as a representative of Decorah law enforcement at the commission meetings. He also helps the commission communicate with the Decorah Police Department and directs victims in following through with complaints.

According to Parker, bias incidents that currently get reported to the decorah police are filed as harassment complaint.

“Currently, the system that we have in the police department doesn’t necessarily single out whether it is a bias event or just a random harassment event,” Parker said. “So, trying to keep data on bias is something that we are not able to do right now but we are trying to figure out how we can do that.”

Despite the fact that there is no way to report bias incidents to law enforcement, Koch and Parker emphasized the importance of reporting. Several members of the community also offered themselves as contacts for the Luther students to help report bias incidents.

“If you feel threatened by someone or unsafe in any way, you can go to the police,” Koch said. “I get it, they dont always feel comfortable to go to the police but it is your right.”

Another part of the concrete action that the members of the board mentioned at the meeting was the proposal to bring implicit bias training to all public officials in the city of Decorah. According to the commission, this would be a costly task and they are still looking to raise about 7,000 dollars to implement it.

According to Parker, law enforcement officials already are required to take an implicit bias training but this will be an initiative in which law enforcement will also participate.

Jenkins said she hopes that the next actions taken by the commission and the Luther administration will prioritize students.

“I hope to see that other students on campus are not worried and scared and living in fear at a college that is supposed to be their home,” Jenkins said. “For a lot of people this is their home. People like international students that can’t go anywhere else depend on Luther college. If they depend on Luther college to protect them, then that is what they should do. This should have been done a long time ago but I am glad that it was been done now better than never.”

A student-led tea and talk event facilitated by Luther Security was held on May 8 in the Mott/Borlaug rooms at 4:00 p.m. with the purpose of forming a bridge of communication between students and law enforcement.

ISAA President Nana Asante-Apeatu, on behalf of members, encouraged students to attend the tea and talk event with Decorah law enforcement.

“Students should look forward to the tea with cops and show up in numbers to make it clear that they are the majority and it is an issue that is relevant to all even though one may not be directly affected by the situation,” Asante-Apeatu said.

Even if there is no way to report a bias incident to law enforcement, students and community members can file a Human Rights Complaint Form. The form can be found in the following link: https://www.decorahia.org/human-rights-commission

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