Four Louisville students left in Belize

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (U-WIRE) – The International Service Learning Program’s annual spring break trip took an unexpected turn this year when four University of Louisville students and an ISLP chaperone were left behind in Belize.

The five had to stay in the country after program officials were informed that there were not enough seats to accommodate the entire group on a Continental Airlines flight back to the United States.

The students and chaperone, all delegates of the pan-African studies department, stayed two nights, with the airline paying for their unexpected stay.

Questions over whether racism was a factor in determining which students remained in the country where the U.S. government has issued safety warnings for tourists are currently being investigated by the university. All the students who were left behind are black.

“We’re determining exactly what happened at this point. Clearly there was a dispute between staff and students,” said U of L Vice President of Communications John Drees. “They ran out of seats on the plane, so those students had to take a later flight, and they decided to wait another day.”

The Louisville Student Affairs office is currently conducting an investigation into the incident. According to Dr. Tom Jackson, vice president of student affairs, he asked his staff last week to meet with all the individuals who had direct involvement with the situation. He, along with Dr. Blaine Hudson, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, will then make a decision based on the investigation.

“There were tempers, miscommunication, and students did not get seat assignments, and all our students should have gotten an assignment,” Jackson said.

When asked for an interview, senior pan-African studies major Shauntrice Martin, one of students left behind, would not comment and instead referred The Cardinal to her Facebook page. Martin’s detailed online account of her allegations is signed by the three other students left behind: freshmen Aubrey Kelly, junior Juanita Scott and senior Tekea Minnis, who are all pan-African studies majors. The letter was also signed by freshman Jasmine Reves, a business major who was at the airport but was assigned a seat back to the United States.

In an online note titled “Kerry Kohl and the Toleration of Racist Ideology,” Martin stated that the four students in question were among the first 15 in the line at the Belizean airport and each student’s passports were collected by ISLP leader Kerry Kohl. Martin said that was when Kohl “snapped at Juanita and dismissed Juanita as if she were a child.” Scott, who Martin said was mistreated by Kohl, said, “I’m very disappointed by Miss Kohl’s actions.” Minnis and Kelly, the two other female students involved in the incident, did not offer comments to The Cardinal.

Martin said despite the girls’ place in the front of the line, Kohl proceeded to let other students through the gate with their passports, while skipping over the females in question.

Martin described Kohl’s behavior as inappropriate, very unbecoming of a university professional and racially motivated.

Last week the four students began an online petition for the termination of Kohl’s employment at Louisville. The university reported no change in Kohl’s employment status and she was unavailable for comment. Kohl’s office, the University Controller’s office, also declined to comment to The Cardinal. As of print time, Kohl has issued no written statement to the Student Affairs’ investigation, according to Dr. Jackson.

But senior ISLP participant Ken Moore, a mathematics major, said he saw the incident differently. Moore said the reason the four students were left behind was because their boarding passes did not have assigned seat numbers for the overbooked flight. This claim was confirmed by both Jackson and Scott.

The airline then cut off the line, and it was worked out that chaperone Sharon Burnett of the pan-African studies department would stay another day with the students in a hotel.

After returning to the crowded airport the next day, the students decided to stay one extra day in the hotel, courtesy of Continental Airlines. Burnett was unavailable to respond to questions from The Cardinal.

Moore, who said he had a clear view of the incident, said many of the students were aggravated, but he witnessed no disrespectful exchange between the students and Kohl. “We were all tired and frustrated, and we were all at the mercy of the Belize Airport,” Moore said.

As for racist allegations against Kohl, Jackson described this as the office’s greatest concern. “We do feel strongly that if there were any racial overtones, it is a major issue,” Jackson said. “No student, regardless of ethnicity, should feel discriminated against, especially on a service trip representing the university.”

Jackson said that the university has apologized to the four students for the incident, and urges students not to pass judgment before the investigation has concluded. “It’s very important that we allow the investigation to work itself through,” he said. “The student body must understand that we have caring administrators that are greatly troubled by this.”

While there are still questions currently left unanswered, many students and faculty such as Jackson and Moore do not want the six days of the ISLP program to be clouded by the seventh day spent at the airport.

“This trip is a genuinely life-changing experience, for both the students who travel to Belize and also for those who receive help in the country itself,” Moore said. “If these negative accusations amount to anything, it will only be to wrongfully disrepute this amazing program, and in turn, hurt the people in Belize who need help the most.”