The practice of calling out offensive speech on social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook has raised the stakes of having a digital footprint — not only for individuals who express bigotry, but also for the institutions responsible for holding them accountable.
Screenshots of Ryan O’Sullivan’s (MSB ’19) Snapchat posts containing racial slurs went viral on Twitter in January 2017, elicited a response from Georgetown’s official Twitter account and resurfaced again in December 2018, resulting in disciplinary action and his firing from the Office of Residential Living as a Residential Hall Office manager less than three weeks ago.
The Georgetown University community, however, received no public assurance that O’Sullivan had been sanctioned at all. His employment at the East Campus RHO officially continued for almost two years after Georgetown University’s official Twitter account said the administration was investigating the incident.
O’Sullivan’s case mirrors recent incidents of bias at other universities exposed on social media. Two students withdrew from the University of Oklahoma on Jan. 18 after a Snapchat video surfaced on Twitter showing one of them smearing black paint on her face and saying racial slurs.
A viral video of a Columbia University student harassing a group of mostly black students drew public condemnation from university deans in December 2018, but Columbia has since declined to release information regarding disciplinary action following the incident, citing student privacy laws. Several Columbia students expressed that they felt unsafe without knowing how the case was being handled, according to the Columbia Daily Spectator.
Similar to Columbia, Georgetown’s response to the O’Sullivan case has been complicated by the administration’s attempt to publicly stand against prejudice while maintaining the privacy of student punishment proceedings. The lack of transparent accountability around O’Sullivan’s case has sparked frustration from students about the university’s commitment to inclusivity.
Public Bias, Private Discipline
Bias-related incidents at Georgetown have risen at a rapid pace in recent years. The term “bias-related” refers to language and behavior that demonstrate bias relating to factors of identity such as race or gender, according to the Code of Student Conduct. The code considers bias an “aggravating circumstance,” which means “bias-related violations will result in a more serious action up to, and including, permanent separation from the University,” according to Georgetown’s Bias-Related Incident Reporting system. The reporting system documented a fourfold increase in the number of bias-related cases between the 2015-2016 and 2016-2017 school years.
One such incident began on Jan. 3, 2017, when Danielle Dougé, a former high school classmate of O’Sullivan at St. Ignatius College Prep in Chicago, tweeted at Georgetown University’s official account and exposed a series of photos captioned with racial slurs that he posted on Snapchat.
Dougé described herself as a former friend of O’Sullivan and discussed her motivation to hold him accountable for his Snapchat posts.
“I made that tweet [because] Ryan and I went to an elite predominantly white Catholic school in Chicago where no rich white student was held accountable for the racist actions,” Dougé wrote in a statement to The Hoya. “Ryan and I were really good friends until I realized I couldn’t change him and I wasn’t respecting myself by putting up with it.”
O’Sullivan apologized for his Snapchat posts in a statement to The Hoya.
“A little over two years ago, I made a stupid and irresponsible mistake on social media that has offended and hurt many people for which I am genuinely sorry,” O’Sullivan wrote.
A few hours after Dougé’s post, Georgetown University’s official Twitter account replied with a public post saying the university was “looking into this through appropriate University channels.”
At the time of Georgetown’s tweet, O’Sullivan was employed by the university as an assistant at the East Campus RHO. After Georgetown’s post, O’Sullivan continued to work at the RHO and was promoted to a manager position in fall 2018.
The administration does not publicly share the details of disciplinary action or employment in situations like O’Sullivan’s. University spokesperson Matt Hill expressed that individual student cases are protected by privacy laws when The Hoya reached out regarding O’Sullivan’s case and employment status.
“While we do not comment on individual cases due to privacy laws, we investigate all bias-related incidents fully, take appropriate action based on our Code of Student Conduct, and reach out to specific communities that are impacted to ensure they have the appropriate support and access to campus resources,” Hill wrote in an email to The Hoya.
The university did not reach out to the Black Student Alliance in regard to O’Sullivan’s posts, according to Larry Taylor (COL ’20), vice president of operations for BSA.
In addition to the Code of Student Conduct, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protects the privacy of student educational records. As outlined in the Code of Conduct, the Office of Student Conduct will “only share information from a student’s Disciplinary Record with individuals from outside the University when it has received written consent from the student.”
The administration took disciplinary steps following the university’s response on Twitter in 2017, including a discussion about race relations in the United States and misuse of racially charged language with a faculty member, according to O’Sullivan.
“At the time of the incident, I faced disciplinary actions and was required to speak with a professor to discuss the impact of my actions,” O’Sullivan wrote. “I learned a lot about the history of race in America that I did not know before and this has helped me to be more aware of how my actions, regardless of my intentions, could offend and hurt others.”
O’Sullivan expressed his regret for posting racial slurs on social media.
“My actions were inexcusable, and words cannot express the remorse and regret I have for what I did two years ago.”
Almost one year after Dougé’s tweet first drew attention to O’Sullivan’s posts, former RHO manager Brittany Ngo (COL ’20) tried to follow up with the university in a series of tweets demanding action. Ngo expressed frustration that seemingly no measures had been taken to discipline O’Sullivan.
“Hi, Georgetown I just think it’s funny how no action has been taken against this student yet even though it’s been an entire year and they’re employed by the university,” Ngo wrote in her retweet.
Ngo felt a responsibility to call out the university on Twitter because of O’Sullivan’s former position of authority within the RHO.
“Ryan was the East Campus RHO manager which means he’s one of the faces of student affairs and residential living for both current and prospective students,” Ngo wrote in a statement to The Hoya. “He has access to detailed and sensitive information of students of color, especially the black student population.”
O’Sullivan remained officially in his position at the RHO for almost a month after Ngo’s tweet. O’Sullivan was formally replaced by RHO Assistant Manager Sarah Mathys (COL ’19) on Jan. 6, according to Residential Services Coordinator Jessica Scibetti and Associate Director for Residential Services Ross Iosefson in an email to East Campus RHO assistants obtained by The Hoya.
“We are writing to inform you of a change in the leadership of the East Campus RHO. Effective January 6, 2019, Ryan O’Sullivan will no longer be serving as the East Campus RHO Manager,” Scibetti and Iosefson wrote. “Current RHO Assistant Manager Sarah Mathys has agreed to serve as Acting RHO Manager in the interim.”
The university did not publicly comment on when O’Sullivan was hired or on any information regarding his current employment status.
Many students expressed disappointment with perceived apathy from the university in addressing O’Sullivan’s case. Ngo believes that Georgetown would not have dealt with O’Sullivan’s employment without continued pressure and student outcry.
“Ryan was still employed by the university even when the picture was exposed and continued to be employed by the university even after the picture resurfaced,” Ngo wrote. “Had it not been for students being enraged about the situation not being dealt with as Georgetown previously said and emailing residential living about their anger and concerns, Ryan probably still would’ve been employed.”
BSA creative projects director Aires Miranda-Antonio (COL ’21) found this sort of language and lack of response is familiar.
“I first heard about the Ryan O’Sullivan situation via Twitter, and my first reaction was honestly indifference. It was no surprise to me that a student, especially a white Hoya, would say the n-word publicly,” Miranda-Antonio said. “People don’t care. Students of color care. As far as the larger campus community, this is no shock to anyone, nor is it outside of the norms.”
Regardless of this familiarity, however, Miranda-Antonio expressed frustration at the university’s inaction.
“I wish the university heard us as we continue to call out the microaggressions we face daily, so when macroaggressions take place, we feel safe disclosing who is doing the harm,” Miranda-Antonio said. “Racist slurs contradict the ‘central values’ of the university and yet they are condoning them with silence regarding their employees.”
The university’s unwillingness to share details surrounding O’Sullivan’s punishment or the actions taken to address his posts has led some students in minority communities to doubt the administration’s efforts to combat prejudice and promote an inclusive environment.
Mariah Johnson (COL ’21) emphasized her dissatisfaction with the university’s apparent hesitation to act and the lack of transparency around measures taken to address O’Sullivan’s posts.
“I feel disappointed in the way the situation was handled, primarily the fact that the incident had to resurface on Twitter in order for most students to hear about it,” Johnson said. “I also feel uncomfortable with not knowing any of the actions Georgetown has taken to address the incident publicly.”
Correction: This article previously stated and contained a graphic indicating that Ryan O’Sullivan was promoted to a manager position at the East Campus Residential Hall Office in fall 2017; O’Sullivan was promoted in fall 2018.