Seton Hall students took a trip last weekend to the South Orange Performing Arts Center (SOPAC) to enjoy the Seton Hall Theatre Department’s rendition of “Steel Magnolias.” However, one SHU student said she was the victim of racial profiling.
Rawda Abdelmenam, a senior special education and speech pathology major, went to the Saturday, Feb. 24, 8 p.m. showing of the play, but she never made it into the theater.
While Abdelmenam had been to SOPAC with friends before to watch movies at the Bow Tie Cinemas, this was her first time there to see a play.
Abdelmenam, a Muslim student who wears a hijab, said when she got to the theater, house manager Tom Cogan told her that her bag needed to be checked.
Abdelmenam 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.” She said he then continued to yell at her, threatened that he would remove her from the premise and closed the theater doors.
Abdelmenam said that the audience services manager, Alicia Whavers, told her that Cogan did what he did because of “‘things that have been happening in our country,’” and that it was for security purposes, which Abdelmenam felt insinuated that she was a threat to others in the theater due to her religion.
The incident prompted Abdelmenam to email vice president of Student Services Dr. Tracy Gottlieb.
Abdelmenam wrote in her email, “Many Seton Hall students and other members were allowed into the theater with bags and bookbags. However, I was the only outwardly veiled Muslim and the only ‘threat’ to the community.”
She added, “I feel racially profiled and discriminated against. As a student of this university and a member of the South Orange community, I do not feel safe or welcome being here.”
Gottlieb wrote in an email that she cannot “publicly comment about a student concern.”
Gottlieb said, “I can confirm that university is investigating this student’s complaint. It is unacceptable for any Seton Hall student to be singled out based on racism or racial profiling or to be denied access to a Seton Hall-sponsored event, period.”
In an email interview with The Setonian, Abdelmenam discussed more in detail about her experience that night.
She described her own bag as “a big backpack, your typical student backpack with my student laptop, a folder, a planner and a book in it,” asked about why she believes Cogan searched her bag, she said that he racially profiled her.
“I am one of the very few outwardly veiled Muslims in South Orange, when he saw me with my hijab on, he shows to take provocative and discriminatory actions. Students and attendees of all different ethnicities were not stopped, they were not questioned,” she said.
She said that Cogan made numerous comments about her bag.
“This was an obvious indication that he thought I was a threat. In fact, Tom Cogan, left his post, where he was responsible to check tickets and wanted to search my bags, while others were seated by ushers inside the theater,” Abdelmenam said.
She added that Cogan kept asking her, “‘Do you want to go in? If yes open your bag.’” She said she was not let in and he closed the door, telling her it was too late to go in since the show began.
When Whavers came over, Abdelmenam said she offered to get her and her friends tickets for the show on a different day.
Seeing that Abdelmenam was not admitted, her friends did not go in either. She said other SHU students that were there in hallway with their book bags were admitted.
Abdelmenam said she feels deeply affected by her experience.
“I have been a member of South Orange for four years now, I have contributed to the community by volunteering, working jobs in the village, student teaching for three semesters in the school district and I have never been so disappointed to be a resident of South Orange,” she said. “I understand that South Orange is not diverse, I understand that the incidents that have been occurring around the country are frightening; however, both are not an excuse to humiliate, racially profile and discriminate against a member of the community.”
Abdelmenam said her hijab is not a threat and that she will continue to boycott SOPAC until Cogan is no longer an employee.
Abdelmenam said Gottlieb responded to her email immediately and that they met on Monday to discuss what happened. She said Gottlieb told her that she will take action and get in contact with South Orange officials.
Abdelmenam said she decided to get the school involved because it was a University production.
Abdelmenam said she has met with Gottlieb and Lori Brown, director of EEO Compliance and Title IX coordinator and said that they were supportive.
She said they also discussed how to move past this as a university and she suggested that SHU hosts workshops where students can learn what their legal rights are in these situations.
When asked what she thinks should be done, Abdelmenam replied that unless racial discrimination and profiling align with SOPAC’s values, then she believes “Cogan’s employment needs to be terminated.” She added, “SOPAC should also consider revising their security protocol and decide on if they want to check all bags or not.”
Abdelmenam said she asked Whavers to see a supervisor during the incident. Abdelmenam said Whavers told her there is no number open for the public and instead gave her her boss’s contact information and asked Abdelmenam to send an email and call on Monday to see what could be done. The name of Whavers’s boss that she gave Abdelmenam is Grayce Coviello, director of audience services.
The Setonian reached out to SOPAC to speak with Cogan, Whavers and Coviello, but were instead put in contact with the director of External Relations Dee Billia.
Asked about the protocol for searching bags, Billia said SOPAC generally doesn’t allow food or drink in the theater.
“The house managers are instructed to search large bags. They don’t even search them, they just ask the person to open the bag and they glance inside,” Billia said.
“They look inside to see if there’s anything there that looks like food or drink, which Tom Cogan did ask Rawda Abdelmenam to do,” she added. “She [Abdelmenam] had a large backpack from what I understand.”
She went on to say that this protocol is standard and the house staff is instructed by management to do that.
Asked if anyone else had their bags searched that night, Billia responded that she did not know specifically, but “it was Saturday night and not that many students are carrying large, large bookbags on a Saturday night typically.”
“However, Tom did tell us that he did search another person’s bag and there were a couple of large bags in the upper mezzanine, which the ushers up there did look into their bags,” Billia said. “There weren’t that many large bags to be looked at.”
Billia said there is always a manager on duty and that the manager that night, Whavers, came out and addressed the issue with Abdelmenam.
Billia said SOPAC is in the process of, “Making sure that we gather the facts from all sides and we’re gonna sort this out as best as we can. Of course we don’t want to have any incidents like these. We want our customers to be happy and enjoy their experience at SOPAC and so we’re just trying to gather facts to make sure we know what happened and to address it then.”
Billia said SOPAC is still trying to figure out its next plan of action.
“It’s unfortunate that Ms. Abdelmenam felt or experienced what she did, or felt the way she did about the experience. However, we do have a policy on our website, it’s published,” Billia said.
Allison Carson, a senior psychology major, is a friend of Abdelmenam’s and was supposed to meet her at SOPAC that night with another friend, Cailee Valente.
Carson said that when she arrived to SOPAC with Valente, she saw Whavers standing near Abdelmenam. “Tom Cogan was standing outside of the theater doors, but made a swift getaway to the elevator as Rawda pointed him out to us,” she said.
Carson added that Whavers spoke to her and Valente.
“Alicia [Whavers] told me that she did not agree with how the situation was handled. However, there was not much that could be done to resolve the issue at hand, because she did not have the authority to do so,” Carson said. “She apologized continuously.”
Carson said she does not feel the situation was handled properly and that Cogan’s “prejudice” drew his attention to her.
Carson said she is “extremely saddened and furious for” Abdelmenam. Carson said she was not carrying her own bag.
“I think that if the SOPAC wants to keep every[one] safe, that everyone’s bags should be checked in the future. An apology should be given to Rawda, and the SOPAC should somehow compensate for her distress,” Carson said.
Valente said, “I did not see the actual occurrence, however Alicia Whavers mentioned that they have security cameras, so any wrongdoings would definitely be caught on camera. I am interested to see if anyone else had their bag checked.”
Valente also said they never received tickets to replace the ones that had been wasted.
Valente said Cogan should be fired and Abdelmenam should receive compensation “for her traumatic experience and to show SOPAC’s respect and apologies.”
Interim President Dr. Mary Meehan wrote in an email that, “Dr. Gottlieb is looking into the matter and we are taking any actions by SOPAC staff very seriously.”
Aleessa Akegnan, a junior biology major, was a witness to Saturday’s events. She is a friend of Abdelmenam’s and she bumped into her before the show.
“I think that it is frustrating and disgusting to treat someone (who was only trying to have a fun night with her friends) with so much disrespect. They racially profiled her and did not allow her into the show without checking her bag first,” she said. “I do not stand with racism and it is shameful that our own community does not welcome people from different backgrounds with open arms.”
Akegnan said she had a bookbag with her too and that even her mom who came to the show had a bag with her too. She added that neither of them were stopped or had their bag’s checked. She said she came to the show early and did not see anyone else get checked either.
“I think this incident speaks to what is happening in our community and in the world,” Akegnan said. “People are still not educated in cultural awareness and racism / microaggression is still prevalent. We must do more as a society and as a community to make sure that everyone is treated fairly and with respect.”
Abdelmenam said she has also contacted the mayor of South Orange and is awaiting a response. On Monday, Abdelmenam spoke with SOPAC Executive Director Mark Packer who she said, “explained that there was no need for anyone to ask me to open my bookbag. The only policy they have is against bringing food and drink into the theater.”
She added, “He explained that racial profiling and discriminating is not a part of their policy and SOPAC does not condone that type of behavior. He also said that he is currently investigating what happened.”
Samantha Todd can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.