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Resident debate: Student, professor field death threats amid debate on diversity training

Western Carolina University students Katie Sanders and Chris Stirewalt appeared on Fox & Friends First Jan. 10 to express their concerns with the diversity training. Image from Fox News broadcast Western Carolina University students Katie Sanders and Chris Stirewalt appeared on Fox & Friends First Jan. 10 to express their concerns with the diversity training. Image from Fox News broadcast

Since a Western Carolina University student took to national news this month to air her concerns about the school’s gender and racial diversity training for resident assistants, a discussion about inclusivity, tolerance and how to interact with people of differing worldviews has been swirling through the Catamount community. 

Katie Sanders, a junior in health sciences from Franklin, spoke to Fox News after going through the mandatory training required of her as a resident assistant at WCU, and the outlet published a story Jan. 7 that quoted Sanders and another RA anonymously. Then on Jan. 10, Sanders appeared on “Fox and Friends First” with Chris Stirewalt, a senior in marketing who is also coordinator for the campus chapter of Turning Point USA , to go on the record. 

“The training was basically from one point of view,” Sanders told The Smoky Mountain News. “The training claimed that it was providing multiple points of views to RAs, but it wasn’t. It was from strictly one left agenda. I didn’t agree with it. It went against my beliefs as a Christian, and I didn’t think that was fair that we should be mandated to watch something like Rainbow 101.”


RA training 

Rainbow 101 is a one-hour virtual course and was just one of many training sessions RAs are required to take in preparation for their role as frontline student employees. RAs — whose job requires them to live in campus dormitories and provide guidance and help to students living in the dorms — are often the first contact for residents dealing with a variety of issues while living away from home for the first time. Each semester, prospective RAs must go through hours of training, with topics ranging from fire safety to mental health. The diversity and inclusion portion of the training included Rainbow 101 and Stereotypes Intent v. Impact, with an optional Rainbow 201 session. Professional staff from the WCU Office of Intercultural Affairs Office taught these diversity and inclusion sessions. 

WCU provided a copy of the 15-slide PowerPoint presentation used for the virtual Rainbow 101 course. Stated objectives included increasing self-awareness, knowledge and skills related to the LGBTQ community, gaining exposure to and knowledge of concepts related to gender and sexual identity, learning basic terminology and vocabulary, and receiving practical tips for how to demonstrate respect for members of the LGBTQ community. Students watched two 4-minute videos: a spoken word poetry video titled “Homophobia in 2018: Time for Love” that depicts a young man deciding whether he dares to kiss his boyfriend goodbye before the watchful eyes inhabiting the public park where they’re walking, and then a video titled “Human Sexuality is Complicated”  that discusses the relationship between sex, gender, sexual orientation and sexual behavior. 

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Students were then introduced to “The Gender Unicorn,”  a visual that aims to represent the relationship between sex, gender identity, gender expression, physical attraction and emotional attraction. Subsequent slides cover various terminology, pronoun information and guidelines for respectful interaction with other students. 

Sanders said she was “raised to treat people the same way with kindness and no judgment,” and that Rainbow 101 training or no, “I still am here for my residents” regardless of their identity. However, she said, various aspects of the gender and racial diversity training, including its perspective on gender identity and expression, offended her as a Christian, and she felt like the training format left no room for discussion or disagreement. 


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The Gender Unicorn, a visual aid used during the Rainbow 101 training, has drawn opposing opinions. Trans Student Educational Resources graphic


Student Government Association President Rebecca Hart, meanwhile, said that the training equips RAs with important information to help their residents. 

“It is a marginalized community, and it’s important to kind of understand the identities,” she said. “So that way you can at least a little understand the struggle when they come to you. I also feel like the students are going to be more open to coming to the RAs if they know that they already know a little bit about the community, even if they don’t know everything.”

The 31-slide Stereotypes Intent vs. Impact training, which WCU also provided, aims to teach students the difference between intent and impact, what stereotypes are and how they affect people, and next steps for everyday actions. The training included a “language matters” section that listed purportedly offensive phrases, including “America is a melting pot,” “When I look at you I don’t see race,” and “There is only one race, the human race.”

“I think it upset me because for the diversity and inclusion training, it said we shouldn’t say that we’re all one race, the human race, which that goes against a Christian doctrine for me because we are all one race, and that’s a fundamental aspect of Christianity,” she said. 

Sanders also felt like the training perpetuated harmful regional stereotypes when one instructor, who is Black, reportedly told the class she won’t stop the car when traveling through northern Georgia because she fears for her safety. 

“The university’s goal is to ensure that all students feel comfortable and at home in our residence halls and in expressing their views in all areas of campus life,” WCU said in response to SMN questions about Sanders’ concerns. “We will strive to accomplish this goal by continuing to have open discussions and encourage dialogue with our resident assistants and amongst student groups and leaders. Part of the educational experience is being exposed to new ideas and beliefs that may not match your own.”



Instead of going to the university administration with her concerns, Sanders first contacted Stirewalt and Turning Point USA. She said that she’d spoken with former RAs who had tried the administrative route and gotten nowhere. 

“The only way to actually get change done is to go to the media, and that’s what we had to do,” Stirewalt said. “I don’t feel like any change would have happened if we had not put it out to the public.”

But making her concerns public also made the backlash public. Sanders has received multiple death threats through the anonymous discussion app Yik Yak. A pair of since-deleted posts on the WCU Faculty Senate’s official Instagram page dismissed her concerns as “nonsense” and “manufactured outrage.”

“Sharing this not as an endorsement of the views expressed in this article but as evidence of manufactured outrage over the practice — and in this case, student-led — DEI efforts on our campus,” read the first one, according to a screenshot Stirewalt provided. “Thanks to the RAs who are working to promote understanding around diversity, equity and inclusion. Keep up the good work.”

The post linked to the Jan. 7 Fox News story and included the “Gender Unicorn” graphic used in the training. 

The second post included a screenshot of a New York Post article on the issue and read, “We’ve made both the New York Post and the Daily Mail for being too ‘woke,’ and I couldn’t be prouder. If you’d like to make fun of this nonsense and also support Lambda Legal’s Action Fund, here’ (sic) the shirt for you.”

That post contained a link to a T-shirt fundraiser titled “Fundraiser for Lambda Legal because of this stupid Fox News story.” The T-shirts in question read “WCU. Woke Carolina University” and contain an image of a unicorn in front of a rainbow. The website states that the fundraiser is organized by Laura Wright, who chairs the Faculty Senate. 

“We feel that that is one of the worst things that has happened,” said Stirewalt. “The fact that the Faculty Senate can mock student opinions just because they don’t agree with them, openly mock them and try to raise money off them, is disgusting. It makes us feel like we don’t have anybody to go to at the school.”

When asked about the posts, WCU administration said that it does not oversee the Faculty Senate’s social media accounts and supports students, faculty and staff expressing their personal opinions publicly, including to the media. 

“That said, we expect members of our community to treat each other with respect,” the school said in response to SMN’s questions. “The provost has had conversations with members of Faculty Senate about the impact of those social media posts. The posts were removed.”

Wright declined to interview for the story but forwarded a sampling of the emailed death threats she has received following national reporting on the posts. 

“I understand your wanting to cover this issue, but in all honesty, I don’t want to give it any more oxygen, and I’ve refused all requests for interviews from the start,” she said in an email. “My actions have been mischaracterized beyond recognition and my life over the past week has been a nightmare.”


Response from student government 

According to Sanders, her main goal in speaking out was to get the university to take her concerns seriously and respond to them. When she first spoke to SMN Jan. 13, no such response had been published, with Fox News coverage up to that time stating that the university had not returned any requests for comment. 

“It just feels like we’re speaking our opinion and the administration’s ignoring us,” she said. 

WCU’s lack of a strong initial public response led the Student Government Association to issue a press release of its own, distributed Jan. 12. 

“Some of the motivation came from students just wanting to see some kind of statement from someone in the university,” said Hart, who is also a voting member of the Board of Trustees. “Technically by my role I represent students, so I wanted to put out a statement so they know we are paying attention and we’re working on dealing with the situation and finding a way to deal with it in a way that’s fair to everyone involved.”


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Rebecca Hart. WCU photo


As a member of the Board of Trustees, Hart would have received a Jan. 10 email from Chancellor Kelli Brown that went out to board members and “other internal/external constituents” and stated that the Fox News story “took an important and serious discussion out of context.” In a follow-up statement to SMN, WCU said that the training aimed to ensure that all students feel comfortable and at home in its residence halls but that Fox News “chose to highlight certain segments of the training and conversations and ignored the goals of the entire training.”

The Jan. 12 SGA statement reminded students of the need to respect other students and called on the university to take three specific actions aimed at better equipping students to do so. The SGA asked the university to evaluate whether more personnel should be added to the Office of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Programs — which was established in 2016 and currently holds only a chief diversity officer position — and to intentionally select books for the One Book Program  that “provide a new perspective for incoming freshmen,” also requiring professors to undergo training with EODP and Intercultural Affairs to better facilitate civil discourse in the classroom. 

Perhaps most notably in light of the RA training discussion, the SGA wants WCU to swap Rainbow 101 for the Safe Zone  program, which instead of a one-hour lecture-style presentation would be a four-hour program broken into two parts, with the second session an open dialogue format. 

“I feel like this individual (Sanders) particularly didn’t feel like they had a chance to really talk during the discussion from what I understand, and so hopefully by building in time for that discussion that will ease up that situation,” said Hart. 


Statement from WCU 

While the university took time to respond, it did not remain silent. As WCU settled in for a snowy holiday weekend celebrating the birth of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr., Brown sent a Jan. 14 email to students reflecting on King’s contribution to the world and what today’s college students can do to carry it forward. 

“This reflection is even more relevant this week — considering recent media coverage about a training session for our resident assistants ­— when we heard a range of concerns about Western Carolina University’s approach to diversity and inclusion and the feeling by some of our students that their voices are not heard or valued,” said Brown. “WCU strives to ensure that all students feel supported and at home in our residence halls and in expressing their views in all areas of campus life. What I have heard this week is that, for some students, we have not met that goal.”


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Chancellor Kelli Brown


Brown continued to say that “the reality of the situation regarding the RA training is more complex and layered than has been portrayed” but that, rather than rebut specific concerns about the training, she wanted to focus on perceptions resulting from the news coverage. Brown wrote that WCU is committed to diversity and inclusion, but also to the “free and open interchange of ideas and the notions of collaboration and respect.” On Jan. 13, she said, more than 30 student group leaders participated in a sit-down discussion to deal with these complex issues, and Brown has asked staff who develop RA training materials to ensure that training materials provide awareness of multiple points of view, recognize students have different backgrounds and experiences, and aim to assist students with communication. 

“We are discussing the RA training, and those conversations will include all presentation materials used and whether they are the most appropriate option for this specific training,” the university said in a statement to SMN. “The larger discussion WCU is having is how do we train and empower our RAs to create a welcoming environment for all students, regardless of their identity, race, ethnicity, gender, background or views.”

Sanders said she was pleased to see Brown’s statement and that while she has not had time to fully digest the SGA’s recommendations, she believes they do hold promise — having the chance for a two-way discussion on diversity issues would be an improvement over merely listening to an instructor talk, she said. However, she would also like to see an explainer at the beginning of the training clearly stating its purpose and believes that diversity training should also cover how to be respectful of people with differing religious beliefs as well. 


A continuing conversation 

This isn’t the first time the term “civil discourse” has made headlines at WCU. In 2016, a spate of anonymous, racist messages posted on Yik Yak led to a campus-wide discussion  about diversity, difference and the importance of handling disagreements respectfully. The EODP was created as an outgrowth of that discussion. 

Hart said she was disturbed to hear about the threats both Sanders and Wright have received as this issue has played out and that she hopes an emphasis on real, offline conversations can restore some civility to the discussion. 

“The issue I’ve been seeing is a lot of the arguing and the death threats, from what I understand, are coming from online, often from an anonymous source,” she said. “We as the university and as students need to move this conversation to an in-person conversation, because oftentimes when people are online they feel like they can say whatever they want and there’s no repercussions.”

Sanders agreed that meaningful conversation is what’s needed to equip the student body to handle these issues respectfully and productively. 

“I think I did get what I wanted out of this,” she said. “Better communication lines, the chancellor recognizing our concerns and acknowledging those and, moving forward, the administration working on those. I think overall the outcome was what I imagined.” 

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