One student has filed in court and others feel unheard after a no-contact order was issued among several students in SIUE's art therapy department.
Tyson Longhofer is senior legal counsel at Alliance Defending Freedom, an advocacy group that lists its mission as defending religious freedom for Christians. He is representing graduate student in art therapy Maggie DeJong, who was temporarily issued a no-contact order forbidding her from communicating with three other art therapy students.
According to a written statement from Longhofer, although the university has dropped the no-contact order, the reasons behind the order were never specified. According to the statement, DeJong and the ADF only knew the reasons for the no-contact order after contacting the university for more information.
“After Alliance Defending Freedom sent a letter to the university, we discovered that the university discriminated against Maggie [DeJong] for her religious viewpoint simply because several students complained,” the statement reads. “This is wrong and unconstitutional — universities cannot ban students from speaking to fellow students simply for peacefully expressing their viewpoints.”
DeJong declined to give an interview, but according to a written statement from her, the no-contact order has been rescinded but the damage has already been done.
“Because of these orders, I was unable to fully participate in my classes, go to certain locations on campus when the other students were present and fully take part in the academic program,” the statement reads. “All students should be free to express their viewpoints without fear of retaliation and intimidation, and I hope that the university will never let this happen again.”
Sadie Tanner-Pobocik is a graduate student in art therapy, and she said she’s known DeJong as long as Tanner-Pobocik has been in the art therapy program. Tanner-Pobocik said she filed a complaint that alleged DeJong was harassing members of the art therapy department on the basis of religion.
“I’m a third-year in the program. We are in the same cohort, we have all the same classes. We have known each other for almost three years now,” Tanner-Pobocik said. “I filed the complaint because I am not a Christian, and [DeJong] has said to me, in the past, and this is what I wrote in the report, … that I am going to hell, that I’m not going to make it when the rapture comes, to the point where I couldn’t speak about religion in class without her jumping down my throat.”
Tanner-Pobocik said her complaint was one of many filed against DeJong. She also said there were some issues with filing the complaint initially.
“We tried first to contact the Center for Student Diversity and Inclusion, and they never got back to us,” Tanner-Pobocik said.
Anna Schulz, graduate student in art therapy, took a groups class in the program with DeJong. During the classes, art therapy students discuss and learn about how diverse groups of individuals with different backgrounds can relate on common issues and deal with conflict.
“I met Maggie at the beginning of my first year [in art therapy], she was a second year at that time. She was nice enough,” Schulz said. “Within [groups class], she appeared several times wearing various Back the Blue-type regalia, specifically Blue Lives Matter.”
Schulz said on one occasion, the course’s professor told DeJong about how some people view those groups as problematic. Since the class was based around discussions of this nature, Schulz said the class discussed the topic that day. However, Schulz said the discussion became very heated.
“Things began to escalate toward the end of the class, and a lot of comments were made and notions [by DeJong] that implied people of one specific religion, specifically Christianity, have a different moral standing, are holier than, even better than others. While those things weren’t explicitly stated, it was said in a connotation that made me uncomfortable,” Schulz said. “They were microaggressions.”
A Black student told DeJong directly that they were offended and frightened by the Blue Lives Matter organization.
Schulz said DeJong never personally threatened her, but she also said she cannot speak for other members of the department.
“It propagated an environment that makes many individuals, including myself, uncomfortable to be on campus,” Schulz said. “Not because we think she, herself, is going to do anything to us, but more so this overall aura of the potential of being aggressed against based on your identity, which is something our program, the art therapy program, really stands against.”
Tanner-Pobocik said the no-contact order stated that several students in art therapy were not to interact with each other, including DeJong.
“It was a two-sided effect. It wasn’t just that she could not contact us. We were not allowed to contact her,” Tanner-Pobocik said.
Shortly thereafter, DeJong got legal counsel from the ADF.
“She threatened legal action if the school did not rescind the no-contact,” Tanner-Pobocik said. “So, the school rescinded the orders.”
Schulz said many faculty members in art therapy have stated they stand against this form of intolerance, but, with the no-contact order being rescinded, it felt to her as though administration is not standing up.
“I have seen so many professors make a stance, say ‘This will not be tolerated,’” Schulz said. “However, I have seen, additionally, that the administration has not necessarily backed up our professors.”
Tanner-Pobocik also said there has been support for speaking out against these microaggressions from outside the university.
“A good chunk of the program is behind this effort, alumni too,” Tanner-Pobocik said.”‘We started an art protest … where a lot of the program got together and decided the school is not backing us up in the way we need it to, and so we just kind of said they needed to do better. We had a community meeting in the art therapy department, and just talked openly about what was happening and how it was impactful and affecting our learning.”
The art protest was first hung in the art and design building shortly after spring break.
Schulz, among several other of DeJong's classmates, are concerned about how DeJong expresses her beliefs may impact future clients who do not share those beliefs.
“She has shown characteristics that do not paint an ethical practice,” Schulz said. “I think it’s incredibly inappropriate, the way that the notion of ‘Based on my religious beliefs, as a child of God, XYZ,’ is an excuse for treating people in a frankly abusive manner.”
SIUE administrators, the director of the art therapy program and SIU's legal counsel all declined to comment.