FAU President Saunders holds student-requested Q&A over stadium renaming

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Stop Owlcatraz Coalition member Alexandra Casuso yelled loudly, “Hey-hey, ho-ho, GEO Group has got to go!” at 11:30 a.m. on Friday, March 1, while skipping in a circle and shaking a blue tambourine, marching towards the newly named GEO Group Football Stadium.

She and other students approached the recruitment room of the stadium for a Q&A with President Mary Jane Saunders about the affiliation with the GEO Group — a private prison company with years of violations and lawsuits.

The Q&A was arranged when over 30 students sat outside of Saunders’s office on Monday afternoon in protest of the stadium renaming.

But less than an hour after the march, Casuso was standing before Saunders in tears.

“When I came here from Peru eight years ago, FAU was the only place that gave me a home,” she said. “And I’m very grateful for that because I really love this school.”

With two degrees from FAU, Casuso is applying to its sociology graduate program and plans to do her research on immigrant rights and racial equality — two subjects that the GEO Group has allegedly violated.

“What do you think I can do when I graduate [from] this institution with a masters degree and with research that advocates the rights of people that this group is violating?” Casuso said.

She was just one of the many who voiced her opinion that afternoon.

The Q&A began with about 250 students, faculty, and community members pouring into the recruitment room. Students signed in questions that they wanted to ask Saunders — they were the only ones allowed to questions. Stop Owlcatraz Coalition gave out tape to cover other spectators’ mouths.

The students were then called on and proceeded to ask questions one by one to Saunders.

Student Rocco Boyer referenced the Colbert Report’s comical report of the renaming of the FAU stadium in his question to Saunders.

“Do you feel like this tarnishes the integrity of our degrees [earned at FAU]?” he said.
Scattered cheers then came from the students in the crowd.

“If you want to use your time cheering, that’s fine by me,” moderator and political science professor Kevin Wagner said. “You only have an hour.”

Student AJ Einbinder asked a question immediately afterward. He asked Saunders if the credibility of schools, such as Harvard or Yale, were ruined after they made the Colbert Report.

Counter-protesters also cheered.

Midway through the Q&A forum, student and community members in the back of the room stood up and left, stating that it was not an open forum.

Daniela Feriozzi, a student from Stop Owlcatraz Coalition and the organizer of the Q&A, left after just 30 minutes.

“She’s not taking questions,” Feriozzi said. “I just don’t want to be in there anymore. I knew this was going to happen.”

Feriozzi was one of the students that stayed behind after Monday’s sit-in protest to help organize the Q&A. According to her, FAU professor Kevin Lanning, who acted as a liaison between the students on Monday, chose the moderator for the event: political science professor Kevin Wagner.

Lanning originally agreed to get student opinions before choosing a moderator. That promise was broken, according to Feriozzi.

“I tried getting student opinions, but I really can’t say anymore right now,” Lanning said at the Q&A.

He refused to comment further.

Outside of the recruitment room, many protesters that walked out of the Q&A continued to protest outside of the recruitment room.

FAU police escorted a man away from the outside of the stadium recruitment room.

According to witness Nathan Pim, a 27-year-old local activist, the student that was escorted away was Nick Christos.

Four FAU PD officers on scene refused to comment on the matter.

“I held up a banner with him,” Pim said. “The police yanked it from. He said it was a violation of freedom of speech and they carried him away.”

“The cop fucking yanked his arm and pulled him away,” said Jeff Weinberger, a community member who attended the Q&A. “This isn’t just about the naming of a stadium, it’s about a system that’s been corrupted to the fucking bone.”

The Q&A ended with Rocco Napolitano standing up, introducing himself as a former prisoner of Moore Haven Correctional Facility in Moore Haven, Fla. — one of GEO Group’s privately operated facilities.

Students heard this and got up out of their seats immediately and left the room.

According to Napolitano, he spent 16 years in a state correctional facility before moving to one of GEO Group’s private facilities for five years — a total of 21 years.

“I had not experienced any issues in the GEO Group prison while I was an inmate,” Napolitano said. “I did 16 years in the state of Florida [prison] and those facilities, on a daily basis, you find egregious situations.”

But according to the Florida Department of Corrections, Napolitano was incarcerated in 1995 for second degree murder and released in 2011 — a total of 16 years. According to the Florida Department of Corrections, he was released from Miami North Work Release Center — a state-run facility.

Some members of the Stop Owlcatraz Coalition were unhappy with the Q&A once it ended.

“Look how much ridiculousness came out of her statements,” Rory Padgett, member of the Stop Owlcatraz Coalition and organizer of the Q&A, said. “She was primed to say this by the GEO Group.”

According to Feriozzi, the students of the Stop Owlcatraz Coalition will continue to protest the stadium renaming.

[Dylan Bouscher and Bryant Eng contributed to the reporting of this story.]

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