More than 100 students at the University of Lynchburg walked out of their classrooms Wednesday and gathered near the center of campus in protest of a “fiesta-themed party” held at a university-owned building last week.

Holding signs reading “culture not costume,” “students against racism” and “ignorance is not an excuse,” the students rallied for more than an hour on the steps of Hall Campus Center and called on the administration to overhaul the school’s commitment to inclusion and diversity.

“I’m very hurt by my peers on this campus, and I would just like to say that just because you have a Hispanic friend does not give you the right to appropriate my culture,” said Jessica Fuentes, a junior of Mexican and Honduran descent. “But I’m not saying you can’t appreciate it. You can love my culture, you can love my music, you can love my food, but you will not disrespect my people.”

On Saturday, photos surfaced on social media showing white students dressed in sombreros, flannels and headbands at a house owned by the university. Some of the students appeared to be wearing fake mustaches and neck tattoos. It is unclear how many students participated in the party or exactly where it took place.

In an email to students Monday, Aaron Smith, the school’s dean of students, said the party showed “a lack of sensitivity towards people’s cultures and the stereotypes they face.” Smith said university officials launched an investigation into the party after students reported the images to the school.

The student demonstrators were joined by more than two dozen faculty members, including Smith. Speaking with a bullhorn, Smith described a meeting Tuesday night between students who planned the walkout and some of the students “who would be considered as the perpetrators.”

Smith said the students spoke for more than two hours about the impact the party had on students from minority backgrounds.

“At the end of that conversation folks were smiling together,” he said. “I saw a couple of hugs and I saw unity.”

When asked if the students behind the party could face disciplinary action, Smith said “as the investigation unfolds, we’ll see what happens.”

Throughout the protest, several students shared stories about the discrimination they have faced on campus while others called on the university to take a firmer hand in advancing diversity. Hundreds of students and faculty members looked on from a crowd in front of Hall Campus Center.

Wednesday’s protest comes just two days after the university named Alison Morrison-Shetlar as the school’s 11th president. Morrison-Shetlar, the provost at Western Carolina University, will succeed retiring President Kenneth R. Garren in June.

The uproar at the University of Lynchburg mirrors a similar controversy that occurred a little more than a year ago at Liberty University. In October 2018, dozens of Liberty students staged a campus protest in response to photos showing a student wearing a sombrero being arrested by a student dressed as an Immigration and Customs Enforcement officer. At the time, Liberty officials declined to discuss the incident.

On Wednesday, Darian Geddis, a senior criminology student who helped organize the demonstration at the University of Lynchburg, read a list of demands drafted by demonstrators. They included requiring all students to undergo inclusivity training, developing policies promoting diversity and hiring more faculty members of color.

At the conclusion of the demonstration, some of the students who participated in the party embraced Geddis. Geddis said the students personally apologized to him and others Tuesday and have made an effort to have “a difficult conversation.”

“It’s a difficult one and it may take a long time,” he said of the conversation. “But at the end of the day it allows us to share our experiences, make this a better institution for everybody and be a symbol of what we want our world to represent.”

Richard Chumney covers breaking news and public safety for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547.

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Richard Chumney covers breaking news and public safety for The News & Advance. Reach him at (434) 385-5547. 

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