By Graig Graziosi
Responding to criticism over the Youngstown State University athletics department’s hiring of Ron Brown as assistant head coach, YSU’s Safe Zone Advisory Council is calling for top administrators to attend the LGBTQIA-focused Safe Zone Ally Program.
Brown has been criticized for expressing faith-based views condemning homosexuality while working for a state institution. In response to Brown’s hiring, Brian Wells, academic adviser and member of YSU’s Safe Zone Advisory Council, sent President Jim Tressel, head coach Bo Pelini and Brown a memo inviting them to participate in Safe Zone training.
“The memo has been a work in progress over the course of the past five weeks. I have heard from no less than 15 to 20 allies and advocates calling for a range of actions from firing [assistant head coach] Brown to having a ‘wait and see’ approach. I felt strongly — as did many others — we had to find middle ground where we could all exist,” Wells said.
Safe Zone training aims to provide participants with the knowledge and skills necessary for engaging the LGBTQIA student population in an effective and appropriate way. Lisa Ronquillo, vice president of YSUnity, a campus organization supporting the LGBTQIA community, said she believes that the Safe Zone training offers unique perspectives on diversity that may benefit the administrators.
“Safe Zone is different from other diversity training in ways that where we are not only dealing with racial and cultural matters but those which affect the growing issues of LGBTQIA issues which include, but are not limited to, gender inclusion and gender identity,” Ronquillo said. “These are issues that many universities are facing currently, especially in light of the fact that more and more LGB and non-gender-conforming individuals are stepping up and being more open about who they are.”
The memo — which contained a list of over 100 signatures from students, faculty and alumni supporting the effort — argued that as the administrators are required to undertake annual diversity training anyway, they should fulfill that requirement through attending the Safe Zone program.
Ashley Orr, vice president of finance for the Student Government Association and SGA presidential candidate, endorsed the SZAC memo and said she believes administration Safe Zone training would result in a more capable administration.
“I am a Safe Zone trained Ally and I highly recommend the program as it educates and provides [for] students who may feel uncomfortable on YSU’s campus,” Orr said. “Student inclusion is important to me and no YSU student should ever feel unwelcome on campus.”
Nick Chretien, Orr’s opponent in the SGA elections, weighed in on the memo as well.
“I support [Tressel, Pelini and Brown] getting Safe Zone training. We need to respect all Penguins on campus,” Chretien said. “Everyone needs to be represented equally on campus, and that’s just a step toward doing so.”
While Wells’ memo was thorough in expressing dissatisfaction with Brown, there was no call for the coach’s resignation or firing. Instead, the memo suggested that YSU could be Ron Brown’s second chance and asked the athletic department to monitor the “climate” of behavior towards students.
“We believe the past efforts of Brown to be against the best interest of YSU and our athletics programs; however, we do not wish to seek the immediate firing of Brown. Youngstown State University has been a place of second chances for many. We hope the same to be true for him,” the memo read.
Ronquillo suggested that Safe Zone training may contribute to a reformed image for the coaches — something she believes would benefit the athletics department.
“It’s important to provide ‘second chances’ and hopefully the coach and [other] higher officials will take part in the training, as it is beneficial to our university’s future to be a marketable campus, not just to athletic supporters but in other areas as well,” she said.
President Tressel replied to the memo on Monday with an official letter to Wells. In the letter, Tressel stated the importance of diversity and equality on YSU’s campus, ensuring that any discriminatory activity on campus would be investigated and addressed.
“Please be assured the university has policies in place that prohibit violence and hate speech. Violence or hate speech against any group on campus, including the LGBT community, will not be tolerated,” Tressel said in the letter.
The letter goes on to invite Wells to join the recently formed University Culture of Community Council.
Though there is no mention in Tressel’s response letter as to whether or not he or the coaches will attend the Safe Zone training, YSUnity’s president Tim Bortner hopes the administrators will take the opportunity to attend the training.
“[If the administrators choose not to attend the training,] that tells me right there that they’re not supportive and that they aren’t supporting our community of LGBTQIA students here at YSU,” Bortner said. “It would make me very sad, especially if our president doesn’t do it. I think it should be required for the president to go through the training.”
While Tressel’s response to Wells’ memo may be the beginning of a season of bridge building between the administrators and the LGBTQIA community on campus, the SZAC is willing to pursue further action should they feel it necessary.
“Our hope is Coach Brown will live up to the expectations placed upon him by his role as a public employee,” Wells said. “If this is not the situation, we will re-evaluate the situation and work with Cynthia Kravitz, director of equal opportunity and policy compliance, to determine if the university will take action or whether entities within the campus or greater community need to take action.”