Leaders of the South Orange Performing Arts Center are praising and apologizing to a student and promising a review of procedures after the student’s bag was searched before she attended a performance at SOPAC on February 24. The student, who is Muslim, was wearing a hijab.
“We offer Ms. Abdelmenam our heartfelt apology and thank her for courageously working directly with us on a corrective action plan that will strengthen us as a welcoming community institution and elevate the level discourse around this important issue,” wrote SOPAC Executive Director Mark Packer in a letter to the Setonian, the Seton Hall newspaper.
Rawda Abdelmenam, a senior special education and speech pathology major at Seton Hall, told the Setonian that on Feb. 24 “when she got to the theater, house manager Tom Cogan told her that her bag needed to be checked.”
Abdelmenam reported that she “originally agreed and opened her bag slightly before she realized that no one else was asked to do the same. She questioned Cogan, who she said told her that if she did not open her bag, then she could not enter. When she asked Cogan why no other students were being searched, Abdelmenam said that he said ‘it is protocol’ and that ‘no one else is a threat,’” according to a report in the Setonian. “She said he then continued to yell at her, threatened that he would remove her from the premise and closed the theater doors.”
Dee Billia of SOPAC told Village Green that SOPAC Executive Director Mark Packer has spoken with Abdelmenam “by phone, and met with her yesterday to further understand her experience at SOPAC and to make sure that we make every effort to train our staff and volunteers in the proper way to handle any situations that may arise in the future.”
Packer also sent a letter to the editor of the Setonian apologizing for the incident and promising change.
“SOPAC immediately launched an investigation into what transpired and identified a series of procedural deficiencies in our policies, but more importantly, recognized the hurt and embarrassment a member of the staff unwittingly caused a patron, and member of our South Orange community,” wrote Packer, who then offered his “heartfelt apology” and thanked Abdelmenam for her courage.
Packer also outlined a plan of “corrective action” that includes reviewing bag search procedures, staff training, cultural bias and microaggression training/awareness, coordination with SHU, and meeting with Abdelmenem.
Read Packer’s full letter below.
Read the Setonian’s original story here.
To the Editor of the Setonian:
I am writing in response to the March 1, 2018 article you published about an experience that occurred at the South Orange Performing Arts Center, and to let your readership know what we have done since being made aware of the incident, and what we will be doing going forward.
On Saturday, February 24, 2018, Ms. Rawda Abdelmenam, a Seton Hall student and South Orange community member, was asked by the house manager to open her backpack for inspection (we do not allow food or drink in the theatre) prior to entering a show at the South Orange Performing Arts Center (“SOPAC”), a procedure which was not posted and has not been consistently enforced with all patrons. As a Muslim-American woman, Ms. Abdelmenam expressed that she felt racially profiled as a result of our employee’s action. This was reported by her to the appropriate authorities at SOPAC, Seton Hall, and South Orange Village. SOPAC immediately launched an investigation into what transpired and identified a series of procedural deficiencies in our policies, but more importantly, recognized the hurt and embarrassment a member of the staff unwittingly caused a patron, and member of our South Orange community. For that, we offer Ms. Abdelmenam our heartfelt apology and thank her for courageously working directly with us on a corrective action plan that will strengthen us as a welcoming community institution and elevate the level discourse around this important issue.
Our corrective action plan includes:
- Revising our policy for inspecting our patron’s personal belongings, which will be posted on our website and prominently displayed in our theatre lobby.
- Training all front of house staff to ensure that they understand the policy and the rules that govern its enforcement and application.
- SOPAC has been in contact with a prominent consultant/trainer on issues surrounding diversity, equity and inclusion – specifically implicit bias and microaggression – in order to schedule a cultural competency/implicit bias training at SOPAC within the next month or so depending upon the trainer’s availability. The training will be offered to all SOPAC staff, South Orange businesses, Village employees, and Seton Hall staff and students.
- SOPAC will work with Seton Hall to promote the workshop, and will proactively reach out to any recommended groups to assist with coordination
- A meeting is being scheduled so that Ms. Abdelmenam can meet with the SOPAC house staff that were present that evening to further discuss the matter and make amends for what occurred; I will also be at that meeting.
On behalf of the Board and staff of SOPAC, I want to assure you that we do not allow, condone or promote racial profiling or any form of discrimination. Simply put, we find any discriminatory practices abhorrent.
At the South Orange Performing Arts Center, we pride ourselves on being a warm, inclusive venue for the entire community. As Executive Director, I want everyone to feel welcome when they walk through our doors and will do everything I can to make sure that this is put into practice immediately.
Thank you for this opportunity to address this issue.