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Photos: Dozens of University of Nevada, Reno students stage protest after racist epithets were caught on video

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Photos by Eric Marks

Students at the University of Nevada, Reno, on Tuesday protested what they say is the inaction of university administrators to enforce the student code of conduct and take disciplinary action against students who yelled racial slurs in a campus dormitory. The demonstration was held on the steps of the campus’ Knowledge Center and drew a fluctuating crowd of 50 or more students, some of whom joined the protest between classes.

“We’re just here to set a standard as far as the tolerance that is on campus when it comes to racism,” said Helen Girna, president of UNR’s Black Student Organization. “This has been an ongoing issue for many, many years and has constantly been swept under the rug, specifically by the housing department.”

Campus housing was the site of the incident that sparked Tuesday’s protest. A handful of students, at least three of whom appear to be white, on April 5 entered the shared space on the seventh floor of the Argenta Hall dormitory—a floor considered a “Living, Learning Community” for students of color—and shouted the N-word multiple times. Many students living on that floor are part of Nevada Scholars of Tomorrow, a Black student organization focused on creating a community of support and a safe environment for its members. 

An Argenta Hall resident said she heard the initial shouts and hid in a study room but captured a part of the incident on video and posted it to Instagram. She said she feared for her life. 

Some on campus identified the students as members of the Kappa Alpha Order Zeta Delta chapter, a student organization not recognized by the university. UNR spokesperson Scott Walquist said that because the university doesn’t recognize the Kappa Alpha Order, he is unaware of how many members the local chapter has. 

The national chapter of Kappa Alpha Order identifies the organization as “a moral compass for the modern gentleman” and as having been founded on the principles of Confederate General Robert E. Lee, including his “religious convictions, exemplary ideals, values, strong leadership, courtesy, respect for others and gentlemanly conduct.”  

Student, faculty groups condemn the incident

Two clubs on the UNR campus, the BSO and Gender, Race, and Identity (GRI), picked up the video from Instagram. The BSO, in the wake of the incident, on April 11 hosted a roundtable discussion on racism and injustice on campus. The event was designed to be a safe space for campus community members to discuss the topic and offer support to those who’ve encountered racial injustice while attending the UNR.

“The university continues to advertise a diverse campus, but it does nothing to support its diverse students,” BSO members wrote on Instagram.  

GRI members posted on Instagram that the incident captured on video “goes against everything GRI stands for and the efforts made by multicultural groups across campus to create safe spaces for our BIPOC students.” BIPOC stands for Black, Indigenous and other People of Color.

“It’s important that we shed light on this harmful behavior and take steps to remind our peers and friends why this is not okay or acceptable,” the post continued. 

The Associated Students of the University of Nevada (ASUN) also denounced the racist comments and provided a list of campus and community resources that offer support for those affected by the comments or who have been negatively impacted by racism. 

Dozens of University of Nevada, Reno students on April 16, 2024, staged a protest after racial slurs being shouted in a dorm were caught on video. Eric Marks / THIS IS RENO.
Dozens of University of Nevada, Reno students on April 16, 2024, staged a protest after racial slurs being shouted in a dorm were caught on video. Eric Marks / THIS IS RENO.

UNR’s Walquist said the incident is under review by university authorities and called the language used in the video “abhorrent.” 

“Any type of racist speech or hateful act is contradictory to the University’s mission and values,” he said. “Words and actions that are racist and meant to intimidate are not welcome at the University of Nevada, Reno. It is completely unacceptable for something like this to happen. It is of the utmost importance that the University provides an environment for students, faculty and staff where everyone feels supported.” 

A source on campus, however, said that neither campus housing nor UNR’s administration had taken any action to discipline the students based on the student code of conduct and instead cited the students’ First Amendment right to free speech. 

The BSO, Monday on Instagram, said campus housing did give the student a “quiet hours violation.” 

The student code of conduct prohibits acts of racism, bullying, verbal abuse or action “that is severe, persistent, or pervasive and has the purpose or effect of substantially interfering with an individual’s academic or work performance, or of creating an intimidating or hostile environment in which to work or to learn.”

Todd Ruecker, president of UNR’s Nevada Faculty Alliance chapter, emailed NFA members Monday to acknowledge the incident and express concern over what administrators consider protected speech.

“I am especially concerned about the allegations that UNR has ignored behavior like this previously by telling [resident advisors] that clear violations of our Student Code of Conduct are protected speech,” Ruecker wrote. “It should not take a video recording for the institution to do the right thing on this important issue. We are looking into the situation and anticipate making a broader statement soon.”

Students to meet with Sandoval

At Tuesday’s protest, BSO’s Girna said the person who yelled the slurs came forward and identified himself as a person of color. She said that didn’t change things. 

“I’m not here to talk about anyone’s identity,” Girna said. “Even if you are a person of color, that is not OK. Racism is not just coming from individuals presenting as white people. Racism comes from within us as well.” 

Girna said members of the BSO have a meeting scheduled with UNR President Brian Sandoval on Wednesday to discuss some of the issues and ideas that came forth from the April 11 roundtable discussion event. 

“He seems very receptive to things we have to say, but until those things are put into motion I can’t necessarily speak on what his intentions are,” she said. “Our biggest thing is we want UNR to protect the students of UNR, because as POCs might be a small number, we are still a part of UNR. 

“UNR wants to advertise this school as a diverse school, but yet it needs to be diverse welcoming as well,” Girna added.

Students also protested in October for what they said were major failings of the university’s Title IX office. At that protest, Sandoval said he was proud of students for taking action on an issue they felt strongly about, and he vowed to meet with them and work on improving operations within the Title IX office. Since then, the university has launched a public dashboard with Title IX data and hired additional employees to work on investigations.

The campus has a legacy of anti-Semitic and racist incidents. A UNR student identified at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 drew a “march against hate” protest. Then-UNR President Marc Johnson was criticized for not expelling the student to condemn the racist overtones of the Charlottesville protest. He said there were no grounds to do so.

Anti-Semitic graffiti has also been spotted multiple times on campus, in 2017, 2018 and 2019.

Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth
Kristen Hackbarth is a freelance editor and communications professional with more than 20 years’ experience working in marketing, public relations and communications in northern Nevada. Kristen graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a degree in photography and minor in journalism and has a Master of Science in Management and Leadership. She also serves as director of communications for Nevada Cancer Coalition, a statewide nonprofit. Though she now lives in Atlanta, she is a Nevadan for life and uses her three-hour time advantage to get a jump on the morning’s news.

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