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The University of Houston has walked back a policy requiring theater students to wear vests while rehearsing scenes outdoors, a move put in place after a campus police officer drew a gun on a Black student while he was rehearsing a play.
The university’s decision, which was first reported by the Houston Chronicle, comes after it was criticized by students, who argued that the policy put the burden of their safety on them rather than on police. Students criticized administrators and campus police officers for failing to acknowledge and address the traumatic nature of the incident on students of color.
“They wanted anything to identify that the students weren’t threats on their campus so that when UHPD pulled up, they could identify us,” said Brandon Sanders, a senior who is studying acting. “A bright green-colored vest is not gonna change the color of my skin, and my skin is black.”
On Nov. 4, University of Houston police received a 911 call reporting that a Black man was assaulting a woman with a knife on a loading dock behind a campus building that is located next to the School of Theatre & Dance.
According to the police report provided to The Texas Tribune by the university, the responding officer drew his gun in a “low-ready position” and “aimed his weapon in their general direction,” yelling at the students to get on the ground and show their hands.
Both students yelled that they were rehearsing and did as instructed. The officer returned the gun to its holster and explained he had received a report of an assault, noting in the police report that he tried to console the students, who were crying and shaking.
It turned out the student, Domonique Champion, wasn’t holding a knife. It was a white sheet of paper that was part of Champion’s script.
University leaders say they have reviewed the incident and determined the officer acted appropriately, according to protocols for reports of an assault involving a weapon.
Champion, who is in the masters program, declined to be interviewed for this story. He sent the Tribune a link to a recording of the town hall where he shared his experience with students and administrators.
“I’m terrifyingly aware that the gun was meant for me. Because of angling, I knew it was meant for me,” Champion said at the town hall, noting the gun barrel was not pointed directly at him. “I need it known [that] it’s more than the gun. It’s the fact the gun was already out, yes. … I need you to understand I did not feel safe moving until I heard the voice of a Black sergeant.”
“I don’t want to ever be known for something like this,” he said later in the town hall.
Champion also told University of Houston Police Chief Ceaser Moore at that town hall that when the officer explained what happened, he cracked a joke.
“He said, ‘You should get an A because you had us tricked,’” Champion said.
According to a letter sent to students by Andrew Davis, dean of the McGovern College of the Arts, the decision to have students wear the brightly colored vests was made during a meeting with faculty and a staff representative from UHPD to find a way to prevent a similar situation from occurring. The group decided that faculty should ask students to wear the vests so they can be identified as actors.
University spokesperson Shawn Lindsey said the university police chief was unaware of the decision to require vests outdoors until last Tuesday. Lindsey said the UHPD administrator who attended the faculty meeting said he was waiting for additional details about the plan before alerting the police chief.
“Asking student actors to wear vests following the incident was not the right course of action nor was it vetted or approved by Police Chief Ceaser Moore,” she wrote.
According to the Chronicle, Champion and other graduate students received vests in November. But some undergraduates, including Sanders, received them last week. Sanders said he started crying when he realized why he was being asked to wear the vest.
“We just woke up to the news of hashtag Tyre Nichols,” said Sanders, referring to the Black man who died three days after he was beaten by police officers during a traffic stop in Memphis. “This could’ve been hashtag Domonique Champion. What if he didn’t put his hands down? What if it was me, a vocal Black boy who would’ve cussed them out if they pulled the guns out?”
Sanders said he did not know about the November incident until vests were distributed last week. He and a group of students immediately went to the dean and expressed concerns with the policy.
Afterward, Davis sent an email to students in the theater school thanking them for expressing their concerns and proposing an open dialogue for the following week with students and administrators.
On Monday, Davis sent an email to all students within the Kathrine McGovern College of the Arts alerting them of the incident and the decision to rescind the vest policy, saying that “vests do not address the issue of providing our students safe and appropriate rehearsal spaces, especially for scenes involving purported criminal activity or violence.”
“Despite its shortcomings, this was a solution that was arrived at with the best of intentions on all sides,” Davis wrote. “The University of Houston is a community that cares, and our top priority is for our students to feel safe so that they can be successful in their studies and in everything they do on campus.”
Davis also noted that counseling would be available for students. The dean announced a new working group of students, faculty and staff to help administrators better respond to student needs moving forward.
Shortly after that letter was sent, Davis sent another message to students in the theater and dance school and said he was postponing the open dialogue until college leadership can share solutions “as completely as possible.”
Sanders told the Tribune on Tuesday afternoon that students will continue to hold their own event where students can share their perspectives on Wednesday. Lindsey said the dean allowed students to continue to host their own event and said he will attend.
“I should not have to signify myself,” said Sanders, who wrote “I am not a threat” across his vest, which he continues to wear around campus as a symbol of defiance. “There should be more sensitive human beings to know that I’m just a student on campus. Before you pull your gun out, look at the situation.”
Disclosure: University of Houston has been a financial supporter of The Texas Tribune, a nonprofit, nonpartisan news organization that is funded in part by donations from members, foundations and corporate sponsors. Financial supporters play no role in the Tribune's journalism. Find a complete list of them here.