Originally published: April 4, 2014, 1:21 p.m.
Updated: April 4, 2014, 3:53 p.m.
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Several dozen students and community members gathered early Friday afternoon to protest alleged discrimination at Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC). Students, many of whom attend CPCC and other local schools, are calling on the college to apologize to a transgender student who says she was mistreated and harassed at the school. Organizers also want concrete LGBT-inclusive policy changes.
Transgender student Andraya Williams has claimed CPCC security officers harassed and detained her as she exited a restroom, later escorting her off campus. Additionally, Williams and her attorney, Sarah Demarest, say that campus officials worked to prevent her from filing a complaint regarding the incident. One official, Williams alleges, told her she had “no legal rights.”
“In being discriminated against by the very people who are staffed for my safety, intimidated by own school staff, laughed at and bullied by my own school staff — these things are prime examples of why I still need a public apology and why we still need a policy change,” Williams said at the rally this afternoon.
“We are raised to believe that this is the land of the free and the home of the brave. Well, they got one thing right, for sure. This is the home of the brave,” Williams added. “Minorities have bravely overcome many obstacles as a team. In order for us to grow and in order for this country to be what it claims to be, we have no choice but to stop bullying minorities. … Now it is our turn as the new minority being picked on to fight and win. We are discriminated against and segregated more often than not. I can’t use my school’s public restroom without being harassed and humiliated by ill-educated staff members. This to me is sad. I feel unequal, mistreated, inadequate, segregated and bullied.”
CPCC had said repeatedly that Williams was escorted for refusing to present officers a student ID. The school later released an incident report contradicting those earlier claims.
On Thursday, the school also released its first formal, written statement on the incident, saying it would examine their policies. Later, only mere hours later, the college had apparently finished their review.
“The College has examined its policies and procedures, and we are certain that they are in compliance with current laws. The College will work to ensure those policies are followed and clearly communicated,” CPCC Public Information Officer Jeff Lowrance said in the updated statement.
CPCC’s non-discrimination policies do not currently include sexual orientation or gender identity.
The dozens gathered for the protest in front of the school’s administrative building, later turning their rally into a march through campus. As they marched, the group chanted “Solutions not excuses,” “We stand with Andraya” and “Who are you protecting?”
Rally organizer Scout Rosen said students and community members would continue to push for equality and change on the campus.
“We are not wrapping this up until CPCC does what we’ve asked them to do,” Rosen said. “And, if they don’t do that, we’ve got your numbers. We’ll call you back [for more protests] and we’ll keep pushing this cause.”
CPCC Public Information Officer Jeff Lowrance had no comment on the protest Friday afternoon. He did say, however, that the school intends to begin reaching out to and planning meetings with LGBT community groups and leaders next week.
On Twitter, CPCC has been consistently repeating portions of its earlier official statement.
“CPCC does not tolerate harassment of any kind,” the college’s Twitter account has responded to several users.
The college has also fired back against reports that Williams was suspended. The school has denied she was suspended and said she is in good standing as a current student.
“This aspect has been consistently misrepresented. To make better ‘news’ perhaps?” the college said to one Twitter user.
“True suspension from the college can come only through the student discipline process,” Lowrance said Friday afternoon. “There is no suspension on the student’s CPCC record. She is in good standing with the college.”
Lowrance said that “some have reported consistently that the student is currently suspended and banned from campus – neither of which is true.”
Organizations, celebrities, leaders speak out
Demarest and her firm, the non-profit LGBTQ Law Center has been calling for several concrete changes and actions from CPCC. Chiefly, they want the school to offer a formal, written apology to Williams and allow her to use the restroom which is consistent with her gender identity. CPCC should also provide training to all “faculty, staff, and contracted personnel regarding the rights of students under Title IX and Title VII,” the firm says. Additionally, CPCC’s policies and practices should be updated to include protections for LGBT students.
“Despite the horrendous treatment, despite the public embarrassment, despite the unfair denial of her right to even complain, despite everything she’s been through, Andraya is not a victim. Andraya is a survivor,” Demarest said in a prepared statement Friday. “We maintain our position that Andraya was denied due process by CPCC. The treatment she received from security officers, school employees and administrators was unlawful and constitutes a violation of Title VII and Title IX.”
The incident has also attracted attention from organizations and celebrities across the state and nation.
GetEqual, a national LGBT activist group, helped CPCC students and those from other schools plan the protest on Friday.
The Charlotte-based national LGBT student advocacy group Campus Pride has called on CPCC to take immediate action, criticizing the college for engaging on social media but not directly with Williams.
“CPCC needs to stop responding on Twitter and actually sit down with Andraya first thing on Monday,” Campus Pride Executive Director Shane Windmeyer said in a statement Friday afternoon. “The CPCC administration needs to come out in full support of Andraya and offer a personal apology for how the campus security treated her. Campus Pride is committed to continue work with Central Piedmont administration, faculty, staff and students in devising an action plan to address LGBT student concerns, particularly transgender student safety. We can’t wait any longer.”
Equality North Carolina, a statewide LGBT advocacy group, has also spoken out in support of Williams, as has the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the nation’s largest LGBT civil rights group. The national group on Thursday called on the school to “act swiftly and deliberately in addressing the situation.” Sultan Shakir, director of HRC’s Youth and Campus Engagement Program, also sent a letter to CPCC President Dr. Tony Zeiss.
Local HRC Board of Governors member Scott Bishop was at the rally, again calling on CPCC to apologize to Williams and change its policies.
Transgender actress Laverne Cox, who plays a transgender character on Netflix’s “Orange is the New Black,” also released a statement supporting Williams.
The incident is also attracting attention from local lawmakers. Mecklenburg County Commissioner Kim Ratliff, who had previously introduced transgender-inclusive protections for county employees, released a statement Friday.
“I am disappointed to hear that a student at Central Piedmont Community College was treated in a way that made her feel unsafe and unwelcome at her own institution of higher learning,” Ratliff said. “I believe all students regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity should feel safe at their school and should be able to learn and excel.”
Ratliff is encouraging CPCC officials to “correct the current situation by offering the student a written apology” and wants the school to update its policies and practices.
Charlotte Black Gay Pride also released a formal statement on the incident.
“We, the board of Charlotte Black Gay Pride, stand in full support of Andraya Williams,” their statement reads. “It is our hope that Central Piedmont Community College (CPCC) sees this as an opportunity to grow and secure a more safe place for LGBTQ persons of all ethnicities. We celebrate the wide expanse of gender identity represented on the various campuses of CPCC and we are optimistic that the college (administration, staff & students) will take this as an opportunity to be educated about the injustices facing the trans community and to respond with transformative policy and culture changes. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.’ Let us continue to seek justice for Andraya and millions of people like her who are brave and courageous enough to step out and be their true self.”
Other groups who have spoken out include the Charlotte Business Guild, which released a full statement on the incident as well. Staffers with Time Out Youth, a local LGBT youth services agency, have also taken a stand and several of their staff were present at the rally. Representatives of other groups were there, too, including Charlotte Pride, UNC-Charlotte’s LGBT student group Spectrum, the Regional AIDS Interfaith Network and the LGBT Democrats of Mecklenburg County, among others.