Racist Incident Prompts Men’s Lacrosse Probation, Coach Termination and BSU Activism for Greater Accountability

In the two weeks since The Student first reported that three members of the men’s lacrosse team chanted the n-word outside of their Black teammate’s suite, the college announced the probation of the team until June 2021 among additional disciplinary measures, while outrage from students, alumni and others from across the nation intensified as captured in letters of demands to the college for increased accountability that the Black Student Union (BSU) wrote and began circulating. 

In an email to the college community on March 20, President Biddy Martin announced plans to address the “culture and actions” of the men’s lacrosse team, noting that the March 8 incident was “only the most recent in a list of deeply troubling cases involving some team members over the years.” The Student reported last year that members of the team were found to have drawn a swastika on an unconscious person at a party; months later, other team members made transphobic comments in the Amherst College Republicans GroupMe in the wake of the college’s controversial release of its Common Language Document. 

Along with educational programming coordinated by the Office of Diversity and Inclusion, a suspension of the team’s 2021 postseason and the prohibition of team gatherings through November 1, the college has notably placed the team on probation until June 30, 2021 and concluded that “a change in leadership for the lacrosse team will be necessary.” The Student confirmed with Director of Athletics Don Faulstick that Coach Jon Thompson has been fired. Thompson was in his tenth year at the college.

These measures are to be implemented in conjunction with earlier disciplinary actions outlined in a March 12 email from Martin, including the dismissal of any team member “who cannot rise to the level of respect from others,” leaving the selection of team captains to the coach rather than to players and the forbidding of team members from living in groups of six or more. 

The March 12 email also attached a statement from Thompson. He wrote, “As the head lacrosse coach, I wholeheartedly condemn the racist language used by members of our team. There is no place for that language, which I find revolting.”

“As a program, we have taken preliminary measures but will continue to implement disciplinary and educational actions to address this particular incident, as well as our role in this community as a whole,” Thompson’s statement continued.

According to Faulstick, while the college considered other options in deciding these disciplinary measures, probation of the team appeared the most effective.

“Probation is a significant part of our overall plan to address the culture of the lacrosse team, but not the only part,” Faulstick wrote in an email interview. “In the end, we felt that probation struck a good balance between sending a strong message to the team and recognizing that not all members of the team have been involved in the most egregious behaviors.”

The team collectively submitted an open letter to The Student echoing Thompson’s concerns, asking “that each member of our team be evaluated based on their engagement with and commitment to the Amherst community at large.”  

“We think individually; we act individually; and we deserve to be judged individually,” the letter continued.

It’s a letter that comes hot on the heels of robust campus criticism and denouncing of the actions. After The Student’s March 11 publication of the article detailing the racist actions, students and alumni took to social media. One tweet, shared by user @natatoouuille, revealed the names of the individual players at fault and was retweeted over 50 times. The Student confirmed that the names in the tweet —  Dylan Finazzo ’20, Rodrigo Castro ’20 and Matt Solberg ’20 — were those of the perpetrators. In the original reporting of the incident, The Student refrained from publishing these names out of concern for altering the disciplinary process that was still underway. The user has since made her Twitter profile private. 

In the immediate aftermath of the tweet’s release, students also began sharing screenshots of the tweet on Instagram, along with photos of the three players taken from the Amherst College Athletics Flickr with the caption “Hold. Them. Accountable.” 

An uninvolved team captain, who asked to remain anonymous, provided an account of events to The Student based on his conversations with the affected Black teammate, Finazzo, Castro and Solberg. According to the captain, the three students “each loudly said ‘goodnight n-words’ to each other. Their Black roommate and another Black student were in his room and overheard this conversation. He was understandably upset and came out to the common room and a physical altercation ensued.” 

The Student’s initial reporting described that the three individuals “chanted the n-word outside of a Black lacrosse player’s suite,” which had been confirmed over email by students present. In its recount of events, which was confirmed by other individuals who witnessed the event, the BSU wrote that the three lacrosse players “screamed and chanted ‘[N-word! N-word! N-word! Goodnight, n-word!]’ outside of a Black lacrosse player’s room.” 

The BSU published an initial letter, which included its perceived account of events as offered above, in The Student criticizing the college’s failure to put in place measures that would adequately address incidents like this one. “This incident exposes institutional ineptitude as it regards to handling a series of threats of racialized violence. It is another clear instance of the college’s lack of specific processes to handle situations like this,” the letter writes.

In the weeks since, the BSU has expanded the letter to further outline solutions for what a deeper, systematic approach to addressing racial violence may look like. Those demands include the incorporation of a clearer, college-wide definition of terms surrounding racist attacks into the college’s code of conduct; more proactive bias prevention work through a proposed discrimination reporting and response protocol; faculty, staff and student training in carrying out the college’s restorative practices initiative; cultural competency and anti-racism training for all members of the college community in leadership roles and for first-year students during orientation; and lastly, it calls for the same vein of training in a year-long program for any campus groups found to be racially discriminatory. Aside from the proposed institutional solutions, the letter also asks for transparency from the administration regarding the disciplinary action taken in this particular case. It concludes with a summative need to “#IntegrateAmherst,” noting that these steps come as the first of a longer project. 

The BSU also began developing Instagram posts for #IntegrateAmherst alongside the letter, which have also garnered increased attention on social media. Along with multiple reshares, the first #IntegrateAmherst post on the BSU Instagram page collected nearly 750 likes.

The letter, made public as a Google Document and circulated widely across social media, quickly caught traction and now has over 150 pages of signatures from campus groups, students and alumni of the college as well as numerous signatories from students attending other schools spread across the country. Many of these signatures were added within the first few hours of the document’s posting.

The Student reached out to BSU for comment, but representatives of the group deferred to the letter as a strong expression of its response to the incident and the college’s disciplinary action.

A similar letter from alumni came shortly after the word of the incident spread formally, and this also called for institutionalized procedures surrounding racism at the college, citing Amherst Uprising as a point of hope for these measures to come during their own Amherst careers. The letter, also spread on a public Google Document via social media, has 554 signatures from alumni as of March 26. It was then sent to administrators, including Faulstick.

In a statement to The Student regarding her reception of the letters, Martin affirmed that the college is now accelerating its preexisting work of instituting training for racist offenses. Martin’s statement is included at the end of this article. 

The college is also working to amend the Student Code of Conduct, according to Dean of Students Liz Agosto. “As President Martin shared in her March 12 letter to the community, we will be working on updating the Student Code of Conduct with detailed procedures to support students and address incidents such as this,” Agosto said in an email interview. “We understand that students are looking for greater clarity in order to understand what they can expect. We are beginning to work on the basics of how to develop an action plan. Addressing the code will, by necessity, include opportunities for community engagement.”

“I suspect there will not always be agreement on the specifics of such policy and programmatic changes. Yet, there should be no disagreement about the need to ensure that Amherst is a truly open, welcoming and inclusive community for everyone,” Martin wrote in her statement to The Student, which is included in its entirety below. “One of Amherst’s great strengths is careful, critical thinking and vigorous exchange about important matters. The challenges that BSU and others have put to us are good evidence of that strength. The BSU petitioners demand that we ‘integrate Amherst.’ That will take us all, working together. We can take a number of necessary steps during this very difficult period so that more of what we need is in place in the fall. I am committed to ensuring that we take those steps for the benefit of the entire Amherst community.” 

Statement from President Biddy Martin: 

I have been asked by the editors of “The Studentfor my response to the letters from alumni and BSU about the problem of racial prejudice and hateful expression on campus. The statements and demands identify the gap between our goals for Amherst and the realities that too many students still face. The documents point out that we have not yet done all we can to create an environment that is truly inclusive and free from the harm of racism. We have had success in increasing educational opportunity and enrolling a student body that more nearly reflects the richness of difference in the world. We have focused on the work of inclusion, but we are not where we need to be. We know that it is not enough to bring talented students from many backgrounds together if the educational environment is not supportive of the success and flourishing of them all. Recent incidents and accounts of student and alumni experiences give abundant evidence of that fact. As you would expect, I am hearing from a large number of students and alumni, with a wide range of perspectives on how we should move forward. I am doing my best to listen and reflect, knowing how important it is that we can move forward as a community.

I share the belief articulated by BSU signatories that change requires attention to systemic matters that go beyond reactions to specific incidents. Reacting to troubling incidents is certainly important, but falls far short of what we actually want — to be part of an Amherst that is created and enjoyed equally by everyone who has come here, that is defined by mutual appreciation and respect.

The documents we have received emphasize a number of needed changes. There are three areas, in particular, that seem critical to more systemic change and have also been in discussion at the College. All of them involve a great deal of complexity, particularly in an academic environment. They include: 1) a robust policy and set of procedures for dealing with identity-based discrimination and/or harassment; 2) a bias-reporting protocol, which has been the focus of the Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion and, when implemented, will include features of the best available models; and 3) the development and use of restorative practices, where they are appropriate, to deal with conflict and violations. As to the first, we know from Title IX standards and procedures for gender-based discrimination that it is possible to develop policies and procedures aimed at preventing harm and holding those responsible to account. Experiences with Title IX also teach us that it is extremely important and difficult to get the policies and procedures right.  

Student and alumni advocacy for restorative practices in the case of race-based offenses converges with work that is underway on training and eventual implementation of such practices. That work will be accelerated. I have asked Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer Norm Jones and Chief Student Affairs Officer Karu Kozuma to take the lead in moving these three identity-based policies and/or practices forward from their current state to implementation, in consultation with appropriate administrative offices and with relevant faculty, staff, and student groups. I will ask Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein and the Committee of Six to organize meaningful discussions between students and faculty about the relationship between our commitment to “respect for persons,“ on the one hand, and “freedom of expression,“ on the other. 

I suspect there will not always be agreement on the specifics of such policy and programmatic changes. Yet, there should be no disagreement about the need to ensure that Amherst is a truly open, welcoming, and inclusive community for everyone. One of Amherst’s great strengths is careful, critical thinking and vigorous exchange about important matters. The challenges that BSU and others have put to us are good evidence of that strength. The BSU petitioners demand that we “integrate Amherst.“ That will take us all, working together. We can take a number of necessary steps during this very difficult period so that more of what we need is in place in the fall. I am committed to ensuring that we take those steps for the benefit of the entire Amherst community.

Correction: An earlier version of this article suggested that the four players involved in the March 8 incident wrote and shared an account of events with The Student. Another player on the team asked the involved parties for their account, then wrote to The Student what was told to him. The article is now updated to reflect this shift. Updated on March 28 at 4:40 p.m.