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Scripps resident advisors strike, want increased financial aid and campus support

[UPDATE: According to an email sent out on Tuesday, April 25 by Samuel C. Haynes, associate dean of campus life at Scripps College, the resident advisors have “agreed to resume that portion of their duties that involve assisting with emergencies in the residence halls.” Mr. Haynes related that the RAs have agreed to assist with students should an emergency warrant evacuation of any of the residence halls and, in the event of an evacuation, help ensure that all residents are accounted for and have safely exited the effected buildings. He added that the RAs are trained to assist with such emergencies as part of their job. As a result of the agreement, Mr. Haynes said, Scripps College will no longer provide the extra security hired to assist with evacuation in the event of a high-level emergency.]

 

Sixteen of Scripps College’s 17 resident advisors went on strike April 13 to protest an alleged lack of support from the administration after the suicide of fellow RA Tatissa Zunguze in March.

The RAs presented Scripps President Lara Tiedens with a list of demands, which include the resignation of Dean of Students Charlotte Johnson, extensive changes to financial aid, increased mental health resources and a restructuring of the RA role.

Until the demands are met, the RAs wrote, the RAs will not perform any of their typical responsibilities, which include enforcement of campus policies, being on-call for emergencies, holding office hours and completing walkthroughs of residence halls.

“The purpose of the strike,” the RAs wrote, is “to put pressure on Scripps to fulfill its obligation to students, to demonstrate the extent of the labor we perform on campus and to break with our normal routine in recognition of the impact of Tatissa’s passing and illustrate our frustration with Scripps’ continued inaction.”

The RAs — Vivian Zhang, KC Read-Fisher, Mia Shackelford, ReAndra Johnson, Anna Cechony, Evelyn Gonzalez, Naomi Shroff-Mehta, Lina Mihret, Salem Samson, Rachel Berner-Hays, Nere Guadalupe Montes, Giselle Garcia, Shanisha Coram, Mikaela Gallardo, Christina Fox and Tara Partow—met with Ms. Tiedens twice, once when they first went on strike and again April 19.

The RAs would not comment on the strike without being promised anonymity, but Ms. Tiedens told the COURIER she thought the conversations she had with the students were productive.

“All of us—the RAs, me, my administration—share the goals of creating a better Scripps. And we also share a number of priorities about how to get there,” Ms. Tiedens said, citing improving financial aid and mental health support, and ensuring the RA job is “workable.”

“And so I look forward to constructive conversation with these RAs,” she added, “but also with the student body as a whole, and with our faculty and staff, about how we achieve these goals.”

Ms. Tiedens said her talks with the RAs were not about trying to get them to return to work, but about having a “constructive conversation” and ensuring they had more time to grieve over Ms. Zunguze’s death.

In an email to the Scripps community April 14, Ms. Tiedens addressed some of the RAs’ demands.

Regarding financial aid, the RAs demanded “an emergency fund to accommodate fluctuating financial circumstances; financial aid packages and scholarships that appropriately reflect increases in college expenses, encompassing tuition, room and board; and the removal of the financial policies that penalize students for obtaining private funding.”

Scripps pays for RAs’ housing, and some students feel trapped in the RA role, as they would not be able to afford to stay on campus otherwise, the demands said.

“This job should not be the only way that students can afford to be at Scripps, and no student should feel obligated to endure the stresses of the job due to financial constraints,” the RAs wrote.

Ms. Tiedens said the college has already committed to improving financial aid; in March, Scripps approved a $400,000 increase to the financial aid budget for next academic year, and added more than $25,000 to the emergency fund. She said the administration is also looking into ways to reduce the college’s “dependence on loans, and particularly among our students from the lowest income background.

“The administration is currently working on the following actions to further address these priorities: restructuring financial aid awards to reduce loans for our lowest income students; creating staff positions dedicated to diversity initiatives and student wellness; and expanding resources in the residential life program in ways that better foster community and belonging,” Ms. Tiedens wrote in the email.

Still, Ms. Tiedens noted that the college is constrained by federal and state laws governing financial aid; for example, Scripps’ Office of Financial Aid says on its website that students must report outside scholarships, because “federal, state and institutional regulations require the Financial Aid Office to consider all student and parent income, assets and outside resources when determining your eligibility for financial aid.”

The RAs also want to modify the responsibilities of their position.

“RAs are asked to police our peers with a system that does not actually model restorative justice,” they wrote. “We are expected to implement a justice system that affects marginalized students more than students with money and privilege.”

Ms. Tiedens said she is open to reexamining RAs’ roles.

“There are some good ideas in [the list of demands] that we should act upon,” she said. “I do feel like...it’s an excellent time for us to do a review of what the position really should be and look at ‘What do the Scripps students of today need in the residence halls from the RAs?’ and really start fresh.”

Ms. Tiedens’ support for Ms. Johnson, whom the RAs claim “has a long history of denying students access to adequate mental and physical health resources and accommodations and has been documented for lashing out at students who requested such support,” is unwavering.

Ms. Johnson “has provided direct support to mourning students and staff while maintaining the stability of the Dean of Students office in the intensely painful period since Tatissa Zunguze’s death, and I am grateful for her leadership and her commitment to this community,” Ms. Tiedens wrote in her email.

Ms. Johnson addressed the demand for her resignation by noting in an email to the COURIER that  “during times of crisis, student affairs can sometimes serve as a focal point for student angst and frustration.

“My focus and that of all members of the Dean of Students Office continues to be on helping ensure student well-being and success,” she added.

Ms. Johnson said professional staff from the Office of Student Affairs are handling the RAs’ “first responder and on-call duties” during the strike; Scripps is also “partnering with an outside security firm in the event of a high-level emergency.”

The RA strike has garnered support from various campus groups, including Scripps’ student government, the editorial board of the Claremont Colleges’ campus newspaper The Student Life and more than 250 Scripps alumni, who sent Ms. Tiedens a letter backing the RAs.

—Kellen Browning

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