On Monday night, Barrett Smith ’13 was fired from his position as First Year Counselor (FYC) on the fourth floor of Stewart in Brainerd Commons for letting a guest stay in his room who allegedly made some of his First Years uncomfortable and potentially endangered their safety.
The guest, a 28-year old man named Luaay from Vancouver, BC, stayed in Smith’s room for one week. Smith, a Classics Major, met Luaay in New York City at an Occupy Wall Street demonstration where they talked for a few hours. Afterwards, Smith offered his room at Middlebury to Luaay as a place to sleep if his travels brought him through Vermont.
Luaay, who has been traveling around the country for the past year, took Smith up on his offer, sleeping in his room and spending his days reading, writing and doing research in the Library and taking trips into town. He mostly bought and cooked his own food, although he did eat in the dining hall on a few occasions.
But during Luaay’s stay at Middlebury, Public Safety received complaints that some of the 38 boys living on Stewart 4 felt uncomfortable with Luaay staying in Barrett’s room.
On Monday November 21 (the day before Luaay planned to leave) Public Safety came to Smith’s room to ask Luaay to leave campus. Because he was not in Smith’s room when they arrived (although his belongings were) and he could not be found on campus, they suspected evasion. Smith maintains that Luaay was visiting his friend in town and unaware that Public Safety wanted to remove him. In any case, their failure to locate him prompted Public Safety to get the Middlebury Police Department involved in finding him.
Two MPD officers, one MPD officer-in-training, and two Public Safety Officers eventually found and surrounded Luaay walking into the foyer of the Davis Family Library. They then issued him an indefinite no-trespass order and escorted him to Smith’s room where he immediately got his belongings and was driven off campus by Smith and another friend.
The Administration’s Response
It is unclear who the made the ultimate decision to fire Smith, but Dean of Brainerd Commons Natasha Chang said in an email, “Decisions with respect to FYC appointments are generally made by the Commons administration, and may in certain instances include input from the Dean of Students and the Dean of the College.” They presented three lapses in judgement on Smith’s part that they deemed grave enough to question Barrett’s ability to continue his role as FYC.
The first is that Smith brought an older man who, by reasonable standards, he did not know “well” into a hall with his First Years, which posed a safety risk. Two incidents made the issue of student safety and the lack of experience Smith had with Luaay more pressing. The first occurred when a female custodian and a male student found Luaay naked in the shower of the boy’s bathroom drip-drying his hair, which Dean of the College Shirley Collado referred to as, “inappropriate nudity,” in her statement. He also apparently urinated in a cup in the doorway of the Stewart 2 lounge in the presence of a group of First Year girls.
Philip Chang ’15 who lives two doors down from Smith said, “I didn’t feel threatened or scared or anything, but to be honest if it was up to me I wouldn’t have had him there, it was not a positive experience for me. But I respected Barrett and his decision [to let Luaay stay with him] and did not to have an issue with it.”
Secondly, the Deans indicated that when First Years told Smith they felt uncomfortable with Luaay living on the hall, he responded based on what he thought was comfortable and appropriate and did not take other people’s ideas into consideration, which was deemed an unacceptable response given his position as FYC.
Smith acknowledged that Luaay had strange habits and did not look like many people on this campus (he is a large African-American man with dreadlocks), but he said, “In the week I spent with Luaay, he showed no signs that he was a ‘threat’ in any way and no residents raised concerns to me or any other Res Life member about safety. If there had been safety concerns, I would have been the first to ask him to leave.”
After one student approached Smith about his discomfort with Luaay, Smith offered to introduce the student to Luaay, but did not say he would ask Luaay to leave. Smith now says,”there is a difference between feeling unsafe and uncomfortable, but I should have done more to tease out that difference, and that was one of my mistakes.”
A third reason for Smith’s firing, is that he initially lied to Public Safety about how long he had known Luaay, telling them he was a friend from home. Smith says of the incident, “I was just not thinking.” Half an hour after telling them this, he went back to Public Safety to tell them the truth, and later on still, he sent Public Safety a formal apology for his actions.
Finally, he broke a loosely enforced rule (number 28 in Section A of Residential Policies in the Student Handbook) that a guest can only stay with a student for three days.
“In accordance with College procedures, Public Safety investigated the matter, and found the guest’s behavior to be concerning and completely unacceptable… FYCs are expected to observe College rules, and in that regard serve as role models to the students in their residence halls. In accordance with the rules, and like all Middlebury students, FYCs are also responsible for the conduct of their guests,” said Dean Collado in her statement.
Smith says of the firings, “I realize that I made some big mistakes, some really serious mistakes, but at the same time this has been a tremendous learning opportunity for me, for the Brainerd Res Life team, for the entire campus’s Res Life Team, and I’ve grown in a lot of ways and I regret that I wont be able to have the chance to apply my learning to being an FYC still.”
Race and Class
Many issues have been brought up surrounding the administration’s reaction to Luaay’s stay, one of which is the role of race and class in how the situation was handled. Smith brought this up in a post on the Gadfly, Midd’s underground publication, where he described Luaay’s detainment by five MPD officers, and Public Safety’s disrespectful and brusque treatment of both Smith and Luaay. He thought MPD’s involvement and Luuay’s indefinite expulsion from the campus were both excessive.
The bigger controversy, however, is the fairness of Smith’s firing and the impact it will have on his hall and the greater Brainerd community. “I’m most concerned about the community in Stew because I think losing an FYC is a big change. I don’t see how this decision benefits anyone, especially my First Years,” said Smith, unanimously considered by those who know him as an exceptional FYC. He is largely responsible for what is widely known as one of the closest-knit Freshmen halls on the campus, fondly nicknamed by some as the “Frat.”
Dean Chang said in an email,”I sincerely hope that the students in Stewart and all of Brainerd Commons would recognize the importance of the FYC’s position as a role model, and I trust that all of these students appreciate the expectations the college community has of an FYC.”
But there has been a large outcry among his First Years and others in the community about his firing, some of which has been collected on this blog, go/barrett. First Years on Stew 4 have also started petitions demanding Smith’s reinstatement.
Many who contributed to the “Keep Barrett Here” blog feel that termination was too extreme of a punishment, and also compromised the best interest of those living on Stew 4 and the Brainerd community.
Smith’s co-FYC Nial Rele ‘12 said, “The Commons may have hired Barrett, but to have the sort of bonds that he has with our First Years is not written into our contracts and it goes so far beyond the bare necessities of the role, that it seems ludicrous that the Commons has the ability to sever those bonds.”
Philip Chang said,”It really wouldn’t be the same if there was some other upperclassmen living two doors over. Seeing Barrett everyday walking in and out is comforting, he is always there to talk to, always happy. I think the balance between him and Nial is perfect for our floor.”
Was the Process Fair?
Smith, Rele, and many First Years on Stew 4 also question the process by which he was fired. “Natasha and Roman [Graf, Head of Brainerd Commons] consulted with other students and our Res Life Team about the incident, but I’m concerned that the voices of the community were not heard concerning my job and an administrative response,” said Smith.
The administration could also have put Smith on probation. This would mean the administration would monitor him, but he would still keep his role as FYC.
There also appears to be no clear way to appeal the decision, which Smith is now in the process of figuring out. “I am continuing to meet with various Deans to clear up all of my questions and concerns,” he said.
“I really respect that the administration needs to take some sort of action. I just don’t know if complete dismissal is the answer,” said Philip Chang in conclusion.
What Do You Think?
Does Barrett Smith deserved to be fired? Was the process by which he was fired fair? How should we view guests in our community? How open should Middlebury be, who should we be open to?
(Update) The Campus’s coverage
The Campus came out with a front page article today mostly concerning the events surrounding the indefinite No Trespass order issued to Luaay. They also wrote their editorial about the discussion of race that the series of events has started. An op-ed written by a group of Stew 4 First Years was also printed, as was a “Letter to the Editor” by Sam Murray ’13 about Barrett’s firing.