The Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT) is a the most recent iteration of last year’s Campus Life Response team. It is a team of administrators, faculty and students who work to ensure that students affected by bias incidents have access to appropriate resources, to assist the Dean of the College division with its response to the incident and to facilitate a coordinated campus response to crisis incidents.
The college characterizes a bias incident as a behavior or act- verbal, written or physical- which is personally directed against or targets an individual or group based on perceived or actual characteristics such as race, color, religious belief, sex, marital status, sexual orientation, marital status, gender identity or expression, national or ethnic origin, disability, veteran status, or age. Behavior reflecting bias constitutes a violation of Vassar College Regulations.
There are several ways BIRT can respond to a bias incident, including identification of and referral to appropriate support services and resources on or off campus and adjudication for violations of College Regulations.
Co-President of QCVC, Lillian Kalish ‘16 was somewhat skeptical of the new developments to BIRT. “I think the shift from Campus Life Response Team (CLRT) to Bias Incident Response Team (BIRT) is an interesting switch. While I appreciate that this organization focuses directly on the incidents of hate speech, racism, homophobia, and all physical manifestations of kyriarchy, I don’t however like that they are called ‘bias-incidents’,” she said.
Kalish continued, “As co-president Julli Taveras and I discussed, when the college calls these incidents that of “bias”, this completely overlooks the systematic climate that produces these incidents in the first place.”
Co-President Julli Taveras ‘16 agreed, saying, “I do think (as Lillian said) that the language used contributes to a certain extent to the erasure of the broader issues on campus that culminate in these incidents.”
In the case of a potential violation of College regulations, BIRT does not play a role in the investigation of alleged incidents or render any decision concerning guilt or innocence in the parties involved. BIRT is solely responsible for supporting the affected person or persons.
Associate Dean of the College for Campus Life and Diversity, Dean Pittman acts as the team coordinator and convenes BIRT within 24 hours to determine the initial steps of action and to identify additional offices or members of the community who can assist with the response to the incident.
According to Pittman, the Campus Life Response Team decided to make a few changes to the team for the upcoming year. Firstly, the name changed in order to highlight the team’s focus on bias incidents.
“When talking to students and other members of the community, we realized that they didn’t have a sense of what the team really did and I think the name provides more transparency,” said Pittman, “We saw ourselves responding predominantly to bias incidents and needed to start calling ourselves what we are.”
Furthermore he stressed, “Last year we did a survey on bias incidents and how those incidents were affecting the Vassar community and what we learned was that students and others were in fact being affected by the incidents and that people wanted to know the details of those incidents.”
Pittman clarified, saying, “BIRT aims to be more transparent about past and immediate incidents. We are currently working to develop new ways of spreading accurate news to the campus community and to track patterns of incidents in order determine the best educational resources to use.”
Pittman gave an example of a recent bias incident that occurred on Say Anything, saying,“There were comments made about the new community of veteran students on campus that were not affirming of that community. BIRT met with the Posse Foundation mentor, who works directly with that community, in order to identify any concerns or feelings of threat that they might have. BIRT then aimed to reduce the threat and look at long term ways of supporting members of that community and educating others about the members of that community.”
Last year, after a bias incident occurred regarding the LGBTQ Center, the Center sponsored an open house in their location so that more community members could become aware and support their community. LGBTQ interns also hosted a teach-in and according to Pittman, “It was a very positive event and drew about 60 people.”
BIRT member and Interim Director of Psychological Services Wendy Freedman spoke about the positive impacts of BIRT on the Vassar community. According to Freedman, “Bias incidents negatively impact the entire Vassar community and I believe it is critical for the College to respond in a thoughtful, coordinated and comprehensive manner. After attending the first few meetings this semester, I am impressed by the thoughtfulness and knowledge base of the members, as well as the preventative and educational goals of the team.”
Vassar strongly encourages the reporting of all hate crimes and bias incidents that occur on campus or at college-sponsored events or activities occurring off campus.
Taveras shared her own feelings about the utility of BIRT. She argued, “If these incidents are going to happen, Vassar needs to respond in such a way that demonstrates that the community at large will not accept such ignorance or hatred. In that way, if those are indeed the goals of BIRT, the group certainly has a role to play when it comes to campus life, social consciousness, and the safety and inclusion of all types of identities at VC.”
She continued, “But, again, what needs to happen in concurrence with this type of group is proactive and preemptive action to counteract the culture that allows for any kind of bigotry in the first place.”