- Delaware State University made anyone who wished to join its new Safe Space Coalition sign a confidentiality agreement first.
- More than 100 students, parents, community members and employees form this coalition, according to the university.
- This comes as university response continues to unfold in addressing recent student unrest concerning campus safety and the handling of sexual assault cases.
They crowded a table in the bustling student center, just days after a late-January protest. Comparing notes, swapping stories, drafting demands in hushed tones, their words steeped in an already restless campus atmosphere.
They had heard of a coalition forming to address concerns of safety and the handling of sexual assault cases. They heard students might get to lead it. Quickly, they agreed on their worst fear.
“I don’t want it to fizzle out,” Jayda Tate said to the group, heads nodding around her. “We don’t have the luxury of time at Delaware State.”
Hundreds already filed out of class, finding megaphones to speak out about feeling unsafe or not taken seriously when reporting assaults. Protesters made noise in Dover that would lead to community meetings, news coverage and discussion during a state budget hearing for the public, land-grant university.
Now, students feel that very catalyst has been muzzled.
Delaware State University made any student who wished to join the Safe Space Coalition, through the core membership or nine steering committees, sign a confidentiality agreement. It would strip over 100 members serving across these committees of free speech on these issues, if they hoped to serve on the new workgroup formed to assess campus safety and existing protocol.
Broad strokes in the agreement bar its signer from sharing “any and all information related to my participation as a committee member,” according to a copy obtained by Delaware Online/The News Journal, for fear that “such willful and unauthorized disclosure violates university policy (and) will be grounds for adverse action.”
Students stopped answering text messages. Some told this reporter they fear their school could sue them. Others fear pulled scholarships. Most didn’t have time to question the validity in their alarm.
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A university spokesperson confirmed these agreements were sent across all members of the new coalition. The chief reason given was the possible handling of sensitive information.
“We need everybody to be on the same page and respect the privacy and confidentiality of what we’re doing,” said Carlos Holmes, director of news services. “Once the committees come to decisions with respect to actions that will be taken, or measures that will be implemented, then that will be shared with the campus community.”
Attorney Alex Morey said she’s never heard anything quite like it.
“It’s another level of troubling that they would have students purport to sign away their rights — their expressive rights under the First Amendment — to talk about these issues that are going on, that are clearly of major public concern,” said the director of Campus Rights Advocacy for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, or FIRE.
Students have strong rights to speech at public universities, Morey explained, particularly on issues of political and public concern.
“What Delaware State is doing here is really putting these students in an incredibly difficult position,” she said. “Because they’re saying we’ll let you help us work to use government resources to fix this incredibly important problem — but you can’t talk about it.”
The lid has been on tight in Dover. Delaware State escorted media out of the large town-hall meeting following Jan. 18 protest, while follow-up meetings were also made closed to the public. This marked the second time reporters have been removed from campus recently while trying to cover issues at the institution, including a shooting in September 2022. Several students also said these confidentiality agreements are common for student leaders, such as heads of Student Government Association, but Holmes did not offer confirmation.
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Morey cautioned that a “well-meaning” administrator may have tied this privacy notion to discussion of sexual assault, but the public institution “is an arm of the state, using government resources” and the best practice is transparency.
Confidentiality or anonymity could have been specifically attributed perhaps to any sensitive student information, she said, if any student committee were going to be granted such access.
Anyone participating had to sign. More than 100 students, parents, community members and employees form this coalition, according to university announcement. The “core” of appointed leaders marries nine separate steering committees that students were free to join:
- Campus Health
- Counseling and Prevention
- Communications and Customer Service
- Employee Awareness and Safety, Facility and Management
- Judicial Affairs and Title IX
- Project Resources and Funding
- Public Safety and Student Awareness
- Engagement, and Safety
One student said she wasn’t surprised.
“If we can’t be open and honest about what we’re doing, what’s the point?” posed Dynah Mosley, a junior who didn’t join any committees, having expected a document like this one. She stood for hours in protest. She spoke in multiple town halls. She shared her own story as a survivor.
But the junior said she’s tired of a culture that keeps quiet.
“One of the big topics that I really tried to push for during the town hall was being open and honest,” she said. “If you want this to be a ‘family,’ then you have to be honest with your family. If you want us to trust, you have to build that trust with your family.”
It’s been nearly two months since the protest.
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Another student asked to remain anonymous.
Connecting on the phone over spring break, the Dover scholar’s caution remained that simply sharing whether they joined certain committees breaches signed agreement. Even while personally more comfortable behind the scenes, they can sense its impact.
“It dilutes the very catalysts of creating that change,” the member said of student NDAs. “So it’s interesting.”
Their committees have had just one introductory meeting so far, this student said, though they hope it’s “still early days.” It is frustrating, however, having fellow Delaware State classmates unable see much from the outside, save noticing electricians working on blue-light systems.
It’s almost dulling the pain, they said.
“It kind of dulls the very reason people became angry — about administration, faculty not handling these cases in the timely order they should be handled,” the student said of sexual assaults. “If you’re asking what the school culture or environment is right now amongst peers. … It’s kind of been complacent.”
But this student wants to see more. And ACLU-DE would agree.
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Executive Director Mike Brickner said the organization has been trying to keep a pulse on campus unrest since the start of the year. He found news of the NDAs striking.
“Not every single student at Delaware State University is going to be able to participate. Not every single person who lives in the area of DSU is going to be able to participate. Not all of the parents or family members of people who go to DSU are going to be able to participate,” Brickner said. “So this is a vent that has essentially cut off that pipeline of public information.”
The director since 2020 said if this measure were intended to protect the possible disclosure of sensitive information, it’s “using a sledgehammer to swat a fly.”
As his organization continues to watch university response, he added, “It absolutely concerns us.”
Holding hope for a Safe Space
President Tony Allen began pitching the scaffolding of his university response by Jan. 20. Even in what the top administrator called “initial steps,” it became clear the coalition would mark central supports. The new workgroup began to form before month’s end, under a prescribed mission to assess protocol and make recommendations to his office.
Allen said the coalition is now tasked with “regular reporting” to the broader university community at least monthly.
One of the largest announcements yet came last week, to the tune of $300,000.
The historically Black university’s coalition was awarded a two-year grant to assist in developing its sexual assault response and prevention program. The “Safe Space Project” will be housed on DSU Downtown, Delaware State announced March 6. The university also committed to continuing its funding after these two years.
Like several measures Allen announced, it joins promises to upgrade campus lighting and cameras, update the blue lights system, garner body cameras for university police and assess existing escort services and counseling hours. Allen did not give an exact timeline for the efforts.
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“I want to emphasize that these are initial steps aimed at immediately improving our current practices,” Allen wrote in a February column. “We will work closely with the coalition and committees as we build out our long-term plan.”
Sexual violence isn’t unique to Delaware State, but the school saw 10 rapes reported in 2022, four other reports in January alone, and another from a parent Feb. 7. One family recently spoke out about feeling no support when her daughter reported an assault, echoing student protest concerns.
Crime statistics at neighboring University of Delaware show five assaults in 2021, with Temple University recording seven that year. These schools are nearly four times and six times larger than Delaware State in total student population, respectively.
Student organizers have repeatedly called on their school to “fortify the integrity” of its Title IX process — increasing trust and transparency, while treating cases as time-sensitive — as well as boost security, escort service, counselors for students and facility improvements to building security and water.
The Dover institution insists it’s on a road to change, while experts question certain methods to get there.
For students, it’s just hard to ignore the clock.
“Delaware State University stalls these types of issues, suffocates them like a flame almost,” said the anonymous student, noting many seniors form the core coalition. “And once you graduate, that’s basically your exit ticket from the university’s issues.”
Kelly Powers covers race, culture and equity for the USA TODAY Network’s Northeast Region and Delaware Online, with a focus on education. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org or (231) 622-2191, and follow her on Twitter @kpowers01.