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‘This is the beginning’: President Smatresk meets with protesters, denounces YCT

‘This is the beginning’: President Smatresk meets with protesters, denounces YCT

‘This is the beginning’: President Smatresk meets with protesters, denounces YCT
March 11
11:01 2022

A group of students, faculty and staff gathered together on the steps outside of the Hurley Administration Building Thursday afternoon to voice complaints against President Neal Smatresk — to Smatresk himself.

The protest was the second of its kind, following through on a promise made by students at a similar protest on March 4 where participants stated they would continue to gather outside of Hurley until things changed.

“That’s what this was all about — accountability,” said Tara Olson, protest co-organizer and political science and history senior.

This time, Smatresk showed up to the protest, unexpectedly giving attendees the chance to voice complaints to him directly.

“This is the beginning of trying to address it,” Smatresk said.

He was joined by Division of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access Vice President Joanne Woodard and Student Affairs Senior Vice President Elizabeth With, often passing students’ questions on to them if it involved Title IX or specific university resources.

“I was really concerned when I heard one student say they didn’t feel safe on campus,” Woodard told the North Texas Daily. “Nobody should ever have to feel like that.”

The Thursday protest and its predecessors were organized after the Young Conservatives of Texas organization invited Texas House candidate Jeff Younger to speak on campus on March 2.

Younger’s platform aims to prevent transgender youth from transitioning socially or medically. The backlash from the campus community was swift and immediate — Younger was met with protesters both in the YCT meeting and outside of the building it was held, where one protester was struck by a police car.

The police officers who worked during the protest are all still on active duty, Smatresk said.

While Smatresk personally did not agree with the actions of YCT, the First Amendment and YCT’s ability as an organization to invite speakers to campus left him “handcuffed,” Smatresk said.

“I abhor what YCT has said and done,” Smatresk said. “We’ll take actions within the constraints of law and the constraints of the policy we have developed.”

Neal Smatresk talks to protesters outside of the administration building on March 10, 2022. Photo by John Anderson.

The constraints of the law also keep the university from reprimanding Kelly Neidert, former YCT president and current communications officer, for her posts on social media, Smatresk said. Several students disagreed, claiming her posts on TikTok and Twitter have broken rules set in place both by the university and Title IX.

“As far as did she break the student conduct, [Smatresk] has had two weeks to figure that out,” said Maya Isola, protest co-organizer and political science junior.

Multiple students asked Smatresk why the university allowed YCT to invite Younger to campus in the first place and the meaning behind the statements the university later released regarding the protests. Since the organization followed the rules for inviting a speaker, there was nothing the university could do, With said.

Students also asked why the university did not send a mediator to the event if they knew it would be this controversial. There were concerns about censorship, Smatresk said.

“In the history of this university, we’ve never stopped a talk and we’ve never had a violent protest,” Smatresk said.

When asked why he saw the March 2 protesters as violent, Smatresk stated people “punched and spit on” police officers as they left the building. He also stated he did not believe a student was actually hit by a police car.

“I think you should be very careful with allegations that someone was run over, especially if it didn’t occur,” Smatresk said.

The student being struck was thought to be confirmed by a viral video and by students present at all three protests.

“I saw it,” history junior Caleb Matchett said. “He has crutches now. It definitely happened.”

When the Daily spoke to the Denton Police Department on March 4, Public Information Liaison Amy Cunningham did not deny that the student had been hit.  Smatresk said re-watching the video and viewing the police officer’s body cam footage backed up his claims but declined to explain any further.

“We have an independent investigation going on,” Smatresk told the Daily.“Let’s let the investigation run its course.”

At one point during the discussion, Smatresk offered attendees an opportunity to speak with campus police “to build trust,” but the idea was quickly shot down. Instead, With and Smatresk brought up the idea of future discussions to review hate speech laws and continue discussing concerns from students, stressing the need for dialogue between all parties.

Some students demanded Smatresk disband the YCT organization completely or at least remove Neidert from her position.

“If I could snap my fingers and remove [YCT], I would do it,” Smatresk said. “But it’s not what we practice on this campus.”

While there are many steps to do so, university staff can and have removed student organizations, such as disbanding a Proud Boys organization in 2005.

“It’s not like they can’t do it again,” social sciences junior Iris Anderson said.

When Kaylen Ruiz, Student Government Association senator for the College of Liberal Arts and Social Sciences, asked what inviting Younger to campus said about the university as a whole, Smatresk stated he did not approve of YCT and how they had hurt the university.

“Do any of you think I like the actions of YCT, who are taking the reputation of this school and harming it?” Smatresk asked.

YCT was not the only topic discussed with Smatresk. Political science senior Edith Campa asked Smatresk if he would comment on a list of demands sent to him by several organizations, including student group Movimiento Unido Estudiantil Vida Eterna in response to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and the U.S. Customs and Border Protection being invited to campus on March 9.

Protesters raise their hands and wait for a chance to talk to Neal Smatresk on March 10, 2022. Photo by Jaqueline Martinez

Smatresk did not address the demands themselves and instead told Campa there were opportunities to open up a conversation about them.

“This is another issue where students don’t feel safe and it was ultimately dismissed,” Campa said. “That’s really frustrating.”

While Olson was happy Smatresk chose to attend the protest, a choice she was not aware of until he showed up, Olson thought Smatresk could still do more.

“Overall, his statement was just a lot of damage control,” Olson said.

Smatresk was asked to release a new statement publicly in complete support of transgender students and their rights to make up for past emails.

“I’m happy to say I support our trans and queer kids and that I don’t support this hateful rhetoric,” Smatresk said.

Many students present compared the YCT to Nazis, bringing up instances of alleged higher numbers of swastikas on campus and an alleged Nazi walking around campus Saturday.

“We’ve had instances of swastikas on campus as long as I’ve been here and on every campus I’ve been on,” Smatresk said.

Several students also brought up their own personal stories of YCT members or Neidert herself harassing students online or in person.

“If YCT is found guilty of any of the things that I’ve talked about, then YCT will be off our campus,” Smatresk told the Daily.

The next steps for the protesters and Smatresk include planning a panel to meet after spring break ends to continue discussions. Olson also plans to invite outside civil rights experts to attend.

“If that discussion panel goes bad, we’ll be right back here on the steps,” Olson said.

Featured Image: Protesters gather around President Neal Smatresk outside the Hurley Administration Building on March 10, 2022. Photo by Jaqueline Martinez

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Alex Reece

Alex Reece

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