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Meet the Stop Owlcatraz Coalition — about 20 FAU students trying to make a big change.

Lulu Ramadan

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The Stop Owlcatraz Coalition met on March 19 to discuss the next step in protesting the stadium name. Photo by Michelle Friswell

The Stop Owlcatraz Coalition met on March 19 to discuss the next step in protesting the stadium name. Photo by Michelle Friswell

A group of about 20 students gathered in a tight circle, legs crossed within inches of each other. Behind them just yards away towers the newly renamed GEO Group stadium.

A month ago, many of them didn’t even know each other. They were brought together by an overwhelming passion for the same goal — to keep their school stadium from being associated with the name GEO Group.

They call themselves the Stop Owlcatraz Coalition and that’s just what they aim to do.

The students assembled on March 19 at 5:30 p.m. to discuss their plans to protest the university.

On Feb. 18, the Board of Trustees — a 13-member board that makes decisions on university policy — reached a unanimous vote to change the name of the FAU football stadium to the GEO Group Stadium. The stadium was renamed after the GEO Group— a for-profit, international prison company based in Boca Raton — donated $6 million to FAU.

The prison company has been the defendant in over one hundred lawsuits in the past seven years. They are notorious for alleged human rights violations including the poor treatment of incarcerated detainees in their detention centers.

Within days of the news of the new stadium name, Britni Hiatt scrolled through her Facebook when an article popped up about the GEO Group’s donation.

Within two days of the stadium deal, the senior women’s studies major created a Facebook page for fellow students looking to protest the new stadium name.

“We are incredibly grateful for this wonderful gift,” President Mary Jane Saunders said in an email statement following the stadium deal. “This gift is a true representation of the GEO Group’s incredible generosity to FAU and the community it serves.”

Hiatt disagrees. She does not want her place of education to be associated with a company with a history of alleged human rights violations.

“This is the legacy our school is setting for us,” Hiatt said. “We need to be in charge of the reputation of our school.”

And she reached other students through the Facebook page — in very different organizations all over campus.

“There was already a widespread initial reaction,” Hiatt said. “The Facebook page was just a way to reach those other people with the same sentiments.”

Students from organizations like Lambda United — FAU’s gay and straight alliance, Students for Justice in Palestine — a group that promotes awareness of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, Occupy FAU — an organization that advocates for less budget cuts and faculty layoffs, and independent student activists all responded to the Facebook page and the Stop Owlcatraz Coalition was born.

Hiatt reflects fondly on the thought.

“I remember we were all having dinner at one point after a protest and sharing food with each other and someone commented that several weeks ago we didn’t even know each other and now we’re sharing food off each others’ plates,” Hiatt said. “I think we’re all just grateful for the fact that we’ve gotten to know other strong student leaders from such diverse organizations.”

Protestors sat outside of Mary Jane Saunders' office and placed signs in protest of the deal with GEO Group earlier this month. Photo by Michelle Friswell

Protestors sat outside of Mary Jane Saunders’ office and placed signs in protest of the deal with GEO Group earlier this month. Photo by Michelle Friswell

Since the formation of the Stop Owlcatraz Coalition, The Nation magazine — a political magazine that distributes nationwide — named the group one of the most important student mobilizations in the country on their website.The students organized a sit-in protest outside of President Mary Jane Saunders’ office on Feb. 26 and managed to get a Q&A with Saunders arranged on March 1. On March 22, Hiatt was allegedly clipped by Saunders’ car in parking lot protest on the Jupiter campus.

“We started this in late February and we were able to bring a lot of people into this in a short amount of time and with the little amount of resources we have, we were able to get a lot done,” Gonzalo Vizcardo, senior economics and anthropology major, organizer of Occupy FAU, and Stop Owlcatraz coalition member, said.

And they won’t stop there. The group plans to protest the stadium naming rights until Saunders and the BOT revoke the decision to rename the stadium after the GEO Group, according to several members of the coalition.

Saunders, Director of Development Philip Rich, Athletic Director Pat Chun, and BOT member William McDaniel all refused to comment on the fact that students plan to continue protesting.

On the morning of March 19, Hiatt and fellow Stop Owlcatraz Coalition member, Arley Baugh, psychology major and member of the Feminist Student Union, drove up to Harbor Branch campus — about 95 miles north of the Boca campus, a two hour drive for the pair — to speak at a BOT meeting.

BOT meetings are generally held on different FAU campuses once a month, but the majority of meetings take place on the Boca campus. The last time a full board meeting was held in Harbor Branch was May 2011.

“Part of our coalition has been touching base with the trustees about student reactions,” Hiatt said. “They’re very quick to write students off for these opinions. You would think we’ve earned a little more respect than that.”

Hiatt and Baugh made the trip as a part of the continuous effort to change the stadium name. Some members of the coalition will continue protesting despite fears they have about protesting Saunders and the BOT. Baugh being one of them.

“I’m an immigrant myself and when we were thinking about going to the Harbor Branch, I was very hesitant,” Baugh said. “I thought if they didn’t like our presence and they decided to get hostile, then I could get sent to a detention center and even deported.”

Baugh still made the trip despite her fears.

“I thought to myself that this is the time for me to speak up and say something,” Baugh said. “Of course the fear lingers, it will always be there, but I believe in the good of humanity and we need this.”

At the meeting, Hiatt brought up a few of the GEO Group’s alleged human rights violations as she spoke in front of the BOT. She does not feel respected or understood by the board.

“The Board of Trustees are businessmen. That’s all they are,” Hiatt said. “They’re not FAU. We’re FAU.”

The coalition plans to work on more protests and continue reaching out to Saunders and the BOT in the future. They began planning those future protests at their Stop Owlcatraz Coalition meeting.

Outside of the stadium that Tuesday, students tightened their circle still resting in the shadows of the stadium. They continued to deliberate their next move in protesting the stadium name.

Feet away from them was Chris Robe, Faculty Union president and only faculty member present at the meeting, settled at ease listening to the members of the coalition from a safe distance. Robe chose not to comment on the matter.

The students passed around a motion with the “Board of Trustees” seal at the top. Thick, black Sharpie pen strides crossed out “Trustees” at the top of the paper. “Students” was written in it’s place. The coalition members passed around the smooth white paper and black Sharpie and each signed the motion to retract the GEO Group’s name from the stadium one by one.

“Honestly, right now, I don’t see an end,” Baugh said. “Not until they take it back or change it.”

[Maddy Mesa contributed to the reporting of this story.]

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