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Racial Bullying and Roommates

A student was expelled for allegedly harassing her roommate at the University of Hartford. How can other colleges prevent a similar situation from occurring?

November 3, 2017
 
Brianna Brochu

While the allegations coming out of the University of Hartford in recent days are uniquely disturbing, there are universal lessons that residence life administrators from all colleges can take away from the situation, diversity and student life experts say.

Brianna Brochu appeared in court Wednesday to face criminal mischief charges for alleged conduct intended to drive her freshman roommate out of their dorm. The allegations came to the attention of the university and its police force after Brochu's roommate, Chennel Rowe, moved out and Brochu bragged on Instagram about finally getting rid of "Jamaican Barbie.”

Rowe is black, and Brochu is white. The police department said it is requesting that Brochu be charged with intimidation based on bigotry or bias, The New York Times reported.

Brochu, according to her Instagram posts, secretly spat in Rowe’s coconut oil, put moldy clam dip in her lotion, rubbed used tampons on her backpack and put her toothbrush “places where the sun doesn’t shine,” according to screen shots of social media posts made after Rowe moved out. In a video made by Rowe and posted to her personal Facebook page -- on which she goes by the first name Jazzy -- she talked about the tense living situation that led to her moving out. She said she hadn’t been aware of Brochu’s alleged actions until after moving out, although she had been getting sick.

“I felt like I was unwanted in my own room,” Rowe said, describing a cold and tense relationship with Brochu that she never understood.

Rowe also expressed frustration at what she perceived was a slow, bureaucratic process by the university in responding to Brochu’s actions, a process she said wasn’t transparent. Brochu would appear in court two days later.

In a statement posted the day after Rowe’s video, Hartford President Greg Woodward said Brochu’s behavior was “reprehensible and does not reflect the values of our institution.” He also stood by the university’s response, and said procedural and legal processes were followed “strictly and swiftly.”

Other universities should be paying attention to Rowe’s story, said Harlan Cohen, the author of The Naked Roommate: And 107 Other Issues You Might Run Into in College, who has spoken and written on issues related to college roommates and times of transition during adulthood.

“It’s awful, it’s disgusting, it’s something no student should ever have to endure,” Cohen said. “And the first question is, ‘How did this happen? And what can we do to prevent this from happening in the future?’ ”

Cohen said university officials -- including but not limited to resident advisers -- should be as proactive as possible when it comes to gauging and getting a handle on their students’ relationships with their roommates. Without making that a priority, he said, “from a professional standpoint, it’s so hard to know when a situation is just two uncomfortable roommates, and someone dealing with changes, or someone who is dealing with deeper-seated issues and is acting in an aggressive way.”

While the Hartford case might stand out because of its graphic detail, it’s hardly the first time situations with roommates have escalated to the point of becoming dangerous. In one of the worst cases in recent history, for example, Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi died by suicide in 2010 after his roommate, Dharun Ravi, spied on him with a webcam and uploaded a video of Clementi kissing another man.

In 2013, authorities charged a group of white students at San Jose State University with harassing their black suitemate for months. Many asked how the incident lasted so long.

While these cases are extreme, the consequences show how important proactive residence-life programs can be.

One simple suggestion Cohen -- who spoke generally since he was not directly familiar with the Hartford case -- advised was encouraging resident advisers and their students to connect on social media. The point of connecting isn’t to spy on students, he said, but rather to more fully develop a relationship with them.

“What I’ve seen, and what professionals have seen, is that students are very slow to share their feelings,” he said. But social media often can connect resident advisers to students in places where they are comfortable sharing things from their personal lives that they’re otherwise uncomfortable sharing in person.

“In many situations, like this situation, the first place they’re going to share their real feelings is social media,” Cohen said. “Those red flags aren’t happening necessarily face-to-face.”

Shaun Harper, executive director of the University of Southern California's Race and Equity Center, also said the Hartford case could be a lesson for having a proactive residence life program. Like Cohen, he spoke broadly since he was only familiar with the Hartford case through news media coverage.

“The research is really clear on this: when students have roommates from another racial group, there are all sorts of educational benefits and gains associated with it,” he said. “Where I think this falls apart though, is that … simply pairing a white woman and a black woman together in a rooming situation does not magically guarantee that those educational benefits that are associated with interracial roommate relationships will be actualized.”

Harper said that while he was disgusted by the Hartford story, he wasn’t surprised. It was hardly the first time that a student from a minority or marginalized group has reported harassment from a roommate, he said, but hopefully it could be a time for universities to re-evaluate their residence life programming to make sure they’re doing as much as possible to prevent these situations.

“How do we stimulate conversations among students about interracial roommate interactions? That’s just not a thing” that many colleges focus on, he said. “It kind of surprises me that this isn’t a thing that’s [generally] on the menu for programs that residence halls offer. They just sort of stay away from it.”

Harper added, “That’s just really negligent.”

While Harper couldn’t comment on Hartford’s specific residence hall programming, dorms are an ideal place for talking about race, he said, because of the captive audience.

“These are people who actually live together,” he said.

Still, it would have to be a universitywide effort, he said, noting that resident advisers themselves are only marginally more experienced than the peers they supervise.

As for students who find themselves in similar situations to what Rowe says she faced, Cohen offered some optimistic advice.

“There’s never been more support to help minority students, whether it’s sexual orientation, or if it's race or religion,” Cohen said, adding that student organizations outside residence life can be a useful resource for tackling roadblocks that pop up during the transition to life in college. “[Colleges should be] making sure that those students have those resources identified early into the process.”

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