Wichita State University’s student government and protesting students reached a temporary truce Friday in the wake of an uproar that has polarized the campus for the past week.
The agreement includes a one-week shutdown of the Student Government Association while top student leaders complete diversity training. It also calls for diversity town halls, initiatives for diversity-related content during student orientations, the creation of a multicultural council and several initiatives to support LGBT students.
“This just shows we are to willing work with students, have those conversations and move forward,” said student president Paige Hungate.
It has been more than a week since an alleged confrontation involving former student president Joseph Shepard and Hungate’s parents. The incident happened after an end-of-year student government banquet at the Rhatigan Student Center.
Shepard says he was called a racial slur by Hungate’s mother and that her father tried to fight him, pushing Shepard’s parents in the process. An investigation into the alleged battery and disorderly conduct is ongoing, WSU spokesman Joe Kleinsasser said Friday.
The confrontation ignited social media late last week and this week, when many students were taking finals. Dozens of protesting students expressed concerns that Hungate could not effectively lead the student body forward and called for her to temporarily step down as president during the investigation.
Shepard, in his first interview with The Eagle since the incident, said he supported the one-week shutdown and diversity training for student government officers, and he commended Hungate and the protesting students for working toward compromise.
“I think the concerns that students raised are valid. But on the flip side of that, I’ve been a student body president, and I know what it feels like to be in difficult situations,” Shepard said.
“I don’t feel that I had many champions when I was student body president, and I want to make sure that I am doing everything that I can … to support them in their efforts to represent all students, regardless of the walk of life they come from.”
Shepard stood by his allegations that he was called a racial slur during the argument with Hungate’s parents last week.
Hungate’s mother, Stacey Steffes-Sundquist, is an assistant principal at Wichita Northwest High School. She could not be reached for comment Friday. A call to Hungate’s father, Trent Hungate, was not returned.
Steffes-Sundquist said in a Facebook post last weekend that the allegation of her use of racial slurs is “categorically false.”
“I do not use such language nor condone such,” she wrote. “I have dedicated my life to giving ALL students the tools to develop their own success, make positive life choices and live with strong character.”
She said speeches made at the banquet by former student officials were “demeaning and belittling my daughter.”
“I felt that I, as her mother, needed to speak up for her against the injustice I saw,” she wrote.
Shepherd said, “I definitely think that how things were said and the actions that were taken were completely unacceptable.”
He said he does not blame Hungate for her parents’ actions, but said she should “take responsibility and accountability in trying to figure out how we could have avoided getting there.”
“I am my parents’ cub, and just like a lion, when you attack someone’s cub they’re coming after you,” Shepard said. “But … I don’t feel that I’ve ever attacked Paige.
“So we have to be very careful with the narrative that we are sharing with our parents, the narrative that we are sharing with those who we are lamenting to, because it can create an environment or invoke a feeling to where people are on the defense.”
The agreement requires current and future student government leaders in cabinet-level positions to complete diversity training through the university’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion. The training sessions include: Safe Zone LGBTQ, Gender Diversity, Recognizing Microaggressions and Diversity in the Workplace.
The student leaders also will be required to complete mental health first aid training through the WSU Counseling and Testing Center.
“We haven’t gone through those trainings, so that was something that a lot of students were concerned about,” Hungate said. “They didn’t feel that we had enough education on how to address and work with marginalized communities.
“So I think it will be good, and I think we’ll be able to learn more and understand how to address people who we may not be able to initially relate with.”
Hungate said facing direct questions from protesters about her leadership for more than two hours Wednesday afternoon was a difficult experience. But she said she felt the conversation began to shift away from “blame” to solutions following the protest.
“A lot of the momentum changed from it being about my family and me to it being about the more systemic issues on campus,” Hungate said.
Hungate said she had a “very honest conversation” with Shepard and former vice president Taben Azad on Thursday night. She said she agreed with many of the protesters’ demands but that she was not going to step down.
“That wasn’t something that I was going to falter on,” Hungate said. “I know that I’m best fit for this role.”
“I would say that this (agreement) puts us at a really good place where students understand that we’re able to compromise,” she added.