← Back Published on

JUSTICE4VIV: Student Protests Revive Calls for Firing of AOK Library Circulation Manager

Originally published in print in University of Maryland, Baltimore County’s The Retriever.

Editor’s note: This article contains mentions of self-harm and suicide.

Since the start of the 2021-2022 school year, flyers calling for the firing of Albin O. Kuhn Library and Gallery Circulation Manager Paula Langley have circulated around the University of Maryland, Baltimore County campus. On April 21, 2022 UMBC students organized a demonstration at the AOK Library demanding Langley’s firing. Chants of “Fire Paula Langley” and “Justice for Vivien” could be heard from the protesters.

The call for Langley’s removal from her position at the AOK Library stems from the death of Library Technician Vivien Barrett in 2016. The flyers and protesters state that Barrett’s death, which was deemed a suicide, resulted from the alleged harassment she experienced from Langley, a sentiment that her parents and many former coworkers share.

According to the Reddit account @justice4viv, the impetus for the 2022 protest was a March 2022 decision regarding grievances filed by four AOK Library workers— Library Services Technicians Joe Lee and Susan Morris and Library Services Specialists Greg Strack and Dakota Boodhoo— against Langley in 2021. Only Morris remained a grievant in the hearing and hoped she would be assigned a new supervisor as a result of the case.

In the hearing, Morris claimed she faced “religious discrimination and demeaning and disregarding behavior” from Langley and that Langley “created a hostile work environment by disrespecting staff, acting unprofessionally, and imposing her religious beliefs on others.” Administrative Law Judge Willis Gunter Baker presided over the case and found that Morris did not meet the burden to demonstrate that UMBC “allowed a supervisor to perpetrate religious discrimination or actionable pattern of demeaning behavior.” UMBC students seem to have responded to Langley’s implication in this decision by protesting the alleged harassment that Barrett faced from Langley.

Barrett began working at the AOK Library in 2009. Barrett’s parents, Jack and Beth Sweeney, recall that the job gave her joy that she previously lacked.

“As [Barrett] found the library and a place to work, she got excited about that…finding the library was really healthy for her and good for her,” said Beth Sweeney in an interview with The Retriever.

In the fall of 2015, Langley joined the AOK Library staff as the Circulation Manager and became Barrett’s manager. Throughout the following year, Barrett expressed feeling discriminated against by Langley. Multiple former staff members report that Langley called Barrett by her deadname— the name a transgender person is assigned at birth but no longer uses after they transition— over the intercom at the library and regularly misgendered her in day-to-day activities.

“[Langley] didn’t like the fact that Vivien transitioned. She didn’t agree with that,” said Perry Alexander, former AOK Library Evening and Weekend Shift Supervisor, in a recent interview with The Retriever. “[Langley] did everything in her power to clean out [Barrett’s] position.”

Beyond misgendering and deadnaming Barrett, former AOK Library employees stated that Langley actively removed responsibilities from Barrett and would not promote her.

“Towards the end of her career, [Barrett] and I had talks about how she believe [sic] Paula thought she was stupid and how she made her feel useless and talked about how she didn’t respect her being transgender,” said Alexander in a 2019 personal statement.

Having worked at the AOK Library for 40 years before retiring in 2021, he knew the library and its staff well, including Barrett. In his 2019 statement, Alexander stated that Barrett felt “bullied and discriminated against by Paula” and had expressed this to “the Library Administration and campus officials.”

“[Barrett] asked for a transfer to another department which never materialized. She eventually committed suicide…Vivien just gave up. She was looked over for jobs in the department she had already worked in the past and she was ignored whenever she volunteered to help out in sharing duties that were left from resigned staff,” wrote Alexander in the statement.

The transfer Alexander referred to was a position Barrett had found in the Gallery Department. However, this transfer fell through. Barrett heard of her transfer denial from a fellow staff member rather than the director in charge of updating her on the position.

At 5:17 p.m. on October 12, 2016, Barrett posted a status update to Facebook regarding the failed transfer. Part of the post read: “I have to continue to suffer under a psychotic manager who hates me for no apparent reason, but it’s definitely not discrimination, according to the higher-ups.”

At 8:26 p.m. on October 12, 2016, Barrett posted her suicide note on Facebook. She was found dead that night.

“I was the last one to see Vivien before she passed. I was the last one to see her,” said Alexander. “She had this look on her face. I will never forget it. I will never forget that look.”

“For her to have taken her life, I keep wondering where I didn’t listen, what I could have listened to better, how I could have made a better difference,” said Beth Sweeney. “Even here, six years later, I’m still curious. I know there’s not an answer to much of that, but Paula ruined that for me.”

During the April 2022 demonstration, students who knew Barrett, as well as some who had never met her, were furious at Langley’s continued employment by UMBC and over Barrett’s death. One student recalled meeting Barrett at the Women’s Center.

“She was the first trans woman with a career that I ever met,” said a student protester on April 21. “I really wanted to get to know her.”

The student continued to visit the Women’s Center even after Barrett stopped showing up.

“I waited for her to come back,” they said.

Multiple former employees of AOK Library report witnessing Langley continue to malign Barrett after her death, making light of her depression and suicide.

“[Langley] said ‘A person who kills themself is weak,’” said Alexander. “I was happy to get away from Paula.”

“On 8/10/17… we got a tour of the roof…[we] were standing at the door to the outside while [Langley] opened it, and she proceeded to joke that she ‘[hoped] no one was feeling depressed,’ something along the lines that she didn’t want to lose another staff, while laughing,” read an excerpt from a personal statement written by Strack.

Olivia Haynes, former AOK Library employee who also feels that she experienced harassment from Langley while she worked at the library, believes that it is on UMBC for not listening to Barrett or even herself before Barrett took her own life.

“It’s unfortunate. The university was aware the entire time. Vivien told them, I told them, and countless people told them,” stated Haynes in an interview with The Retriever.

In an official university statement given to The Retriever, UMBC stated that Barrett’s death “was a tragic loss to our UMBC community and Vivien’s loved ones.”

According to the statement, the university did look into the claims made by Barrett, Haynes and other AOK employees, hiring the outside firm, Cohen Seglias Pallas Greenhall & Furman PC, to “objectively assess” Langley’s alleged abuse. The firm launched “a wide-ranging and thorough investigation of the employment setting preceding [Vivien’s] suicide.” “However, the evidence established in the review determined that the supervisor had not engaged in intentional or malicious conduct toward Vivien nor had she discriminated against Vivien based on her transgender identity.”

Despite the investigation finding inconclusive evidence to support the claims of abuse, harassment and discrimination, the statement said that UMBC took efforts to better support the LGBTQ+ community at the university after Barrett’s suicide. The statement said that the administration reached out to the LGBTQ+ Faculty Staff Association and LGBTQ+ student leaders to consult with them on the best ways to support our LGBTQ campus community following Barrett’s suicide.

“We hope that some awareness of the university’s response to this case can help others who may feel vulnerable and we appreciate your care and support for our community,” read the statement.

UMBC President Dr. Freeman Hrabowski reiterated the points of the statement in an interview with The Retriever on April 22, the day after the protests. He stated that he and his team met with student, staff and faculty LGBTQ+ groups on campus in 2016 following Barrett’s death to ask how the university could better “support” its LGBTQ+ community.

Dr. Shelly Wiechelt, President of the UMBC LGBTQ Faculty Staff Association at the time of Barrett’s death in 2016, said that Hrabowski’s “efforts to be supportive to us [UMBC LGBTQ+ community members] were immediate and ongoing” and that “[t]he university did make progress on LGTBQ inclusion and continues to work on it” in a comment to The Retriever.

Hrabowski also noted in the April 22 interview that one result of these conversations was the institution of gender neutral bathrooms across campus in the years since 2016.

Candance Dodson-Reed, Chief of Staff to the President and Executive Director of the Office of Equity and Inclusion at UMBC, stated in an interview with The Retriever on the day after the protests that UMBC’s Inclusion Council met earlier that day to discuss how to “provide care to those hurting again” with the recent discussions of Barrett’s suicide and alleged harassment.

Dodson-Reed also said that the student member of the Inclusion Council is “pulling together” a group of undergraduate students to participate in a conversation about these issues this week.

Debbie Michaels, President of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees Union Local 1459, explained that she and the Local 1459 stand in solidarity with with all staff and student workers at UMBC, especially when they face discrimination in the workplace.

“UMBC prides itself in receiving awards as a great place to work. It is concerning that our trans women workers in the library do not feel that they are being treated with the same dignity and respect. I praise them for taking a stand against this unfair treatment,” said Michaels.

While the university’s investigation cleared Langley of discrimination charges, student protestors feel differently.

“A library is supposed to be a safe space for everyone and the fact that [Langley] is still here and that they’re still protecting her, letting her do her job while she still makes fun of people, is ridiculous and she should be fired,” said Valerie, a student protester and freshman Computer Engineering major.

Many student protestors felt that Langley’s continued employment at the AOK Library goes directly against UMBC’s values of diversity and inclusivity.

“[Langley’s behavior] almost makes me feel as if what this school preaches about, inclusivity and having safe environments for all, is like a coat of fancy paint, covering up other issues that are plaguing the school and the people that staff it and attend it,” Lukas Proctor, a junior Animation major, told The Retriever at the protest.

Psychology major Enoch believes that UMBC letting Langley continue to work at the AOK Library condones her alleged discrimination towards transgender people.

“Having an employer like that, it teaches students that it’s okay, you won’t find any consequences towards you. That’s so dangerous, especially since there’s so many trans people here,” said Enoch. “As a trans male, I thought this school would do better. I do get misgendered and I do get looks, especially now that we’re protesting.”

For the Sweeneys, the revitalization of the push for Langley to be fired has reinforced their disbelief at UMBC’s choice to keep her employed.

“I don’t want to put the university between a rock and a hard place, but I disagree with them allowing [Langley] to stay there,” said Beth Sweeney.

“I don’t know how [Langley] hasn’t been fired,” said Jack Sweeney. “With all the reports we have heard of, and with our own experience with Vivien, I don’t understand how that person is still there.”

Langley did not respond to The Retriever’s requests for an interview.

Director of the AOK Library Patrick Dawson declined to comment.

Editor-in-Chief Morgan Casey, Content Managing Editor Grace Reeb and Opinions Editor Isabel Taylor contributed to this article.