A faculty suggestion that University of Houston student actors wear neon vests was rescinded this week after campus police drew a gun on a Black student rehearsing a scene last semester.
Theater department faculty members developed the plan for students to wear bright safety vests when they are rehearsing in outdoor public spaces, according to Andrew Davis, the dean of Kathrine G. McGovern College of the Arts. The idea aimed to identify working actors after a University of Houston police officer drew a gun on a graduate student who was rehearsing a scene on campus.
Graduate students received vests last semester, according to the Houston Chronicle, which first reported the story. Undergraduate students got them last month, The Cougar, the university’s student-run newspaper, reported.
The faculty suggestion was rescinded this week.
“Among other concerns, vests do not address the issue of providing our students safe and appropriate rehearsal spaces, especially for scenes involving purported criminal activity or violence,” Davis said. “Therefore, the School of Theatre and Dance has retracted this proposal and will not ask students to wear vests.”
The university confirmed the decision came from the College of Arts and Letters and was not a campuswide policy. The request to wear vests was “not the right course of action, nor was it vetted or approved by Police Chief Ceaser Moore,” the university said.
“McGovern College leadership is taking the necessary steps to review protocols to ensure that student actors are provided with appropriate rehearsal space and safety protocols, especially for scenes of purported criminal activity or violence that could cause public alarm or confusion,” it said in a statement.
Rehearsal gone wrong
On Nov. 4, a student reported that a Black man with tattoos was grabbing a woman and covering her mouth in an alley between two campus buildings. The student, who was not identified, said he had heard the woman scream for help.
“Listen, does he have any weapons?” a dispatcher asked, according to a 911 call provided by the school.
“I do not know, and I do not want to get any closer,” the caller said.
The caller remained on the phone until officers arrived. One officer “drew his gun in the low-ready position” after having observed an object thought to be a knife in “the stabbing down motion,” according to a university police report.
The object was not a knife. It was a script, the student reported later.
Both students immediately complied with officers' commands to get on the ground and shouted that they were rehearsing, the report said. The officer holstered his weapon and tried to console the students, who were crying and shaking.
A police report says the students told campus police they were rehearsing a scene from Sam Shepard's play “A Lie of the Mind.” The woman told officers that she was “supposed to be in distress” because her character was a disabled woman trying to escape her brother and that her classmate was restraining her as part of the scene.
University police reports redacted the students' names. The man who was mistaken for an assailant has since been identified as Domonique Champion. Champion did not immediately respond to a message seeking an interview Wednesday,
Champion is a graduate student studying acting and theater, according to The Cougar, the campus newspaper. He told the paper that he has been struggling since the incident, experiencing panic attacks and suicidal ideation.
“I kept seeing this image of a gun and almost hoping something would happen to me,” Champion told The Cougar.
On social media, Champion posted a link to a recent university town hall at which he shared his experience with students, faculty members and the university’s police chief. At the event, he held up the piece of paper that he said he was mistaken for a weapon in November.
“There are holes in this tale that are breaking me,” Champion said during the town hall. “There were two people involved with that. … I’m terrifyingly aware that the gun was meant for me.”
This vest's 'not bulletproof'
Brandon Sanders, a senior, told the campus newspaper he had not been aware that a gun was drawn on a classmate until faculty members began handing out vests in January.
Sanders did not immediately respond to a request for an interview. He has posted about the situation to social media and spoke with The Cougar.
“I want the students to be informed, and I want them to know how much power they have,” Sanders told the school newspaper. “Because they need to understand that their lives are at risk.”
Sanders said on Twitter that he was given a neon green vest on Jan. 24. He wrote that he was upset it had taken so long to learn about the incident and urged university officials to make a campuswide statement.
“I feel unsafe. This situation is so much bigger than they tried to play it,” Sanders tweeted. “It could’ve been me. I’m scared for my life and the entire school should know. “
Sanders documented his frustrations and the protests about the vests on his social media accounts, posting videos on YouTube chronicling his interactions with other students and the town hall Thursday with faculty. In his videos, Sanders is wearing the vest with the words “I am not a threat” handwritten across its reflective silver lines.
At one point in his video of the town hall, Sanders can be seen crying, saying, “It’s not bulletproof.”
“A bright green vest will not change the color of my skin,” Sanders told The Cougar. “I saw it as the utmost disrespect. These vests aren’t bulletproof. All they do is make me stand out.”
Davis, the arts dean, acknowledged the students’ frustrations, saying Monday by email that the faculty generated the vest idea “with the best of intentions on all sides.”
“I recognize that despite the appropriateness of the actions by the responding UHPD officer, these situations can be troubling to those directly or indirectly involved, especially considering the lack of complete information, and misinformation, in the public dialogue surrounding the incident,” Davis wrote.
He also informed students that the college would make trained clinicians available for counseling. The school is creating a working group with students and faculty and staff members to better respond to concerns, he said.