Public Safety, Student Government Association continue policy discussions

By Erica Quinones

The relationship between the Department of Public Safety and Washington College students has been a persistent conversation in the Student Government Association this semester, with representatives of PS and Student Affairs attending Senate to address the issue on Sept. 21 and Oct. 12. The continued discussion around policy and enforcement culminated in Senate passing a resolution containing student concerns regarding PS’s policies and approaches on Oct. 19.

The resolution was written in response to “pushback” from students in order to summarize their concerns regarding policies and PS enforcement, according to Secretary of Student Life sophomore Kamden Richardson. 

A resolution was chosen for this statement because it enumerates student concerns and desires to the administration, according to Richardson. The College is not required to respond to the resolution with policy.

The Public Safety Resolution describes “persistent student concerns about PS’s lack of transparency, specifically in regard to training, approaches, and consistency of policy implementation,” according to the resolution.

While both Director of Public Safety Pamela Hoffman and Interim Dean of Students Greg Krikorian answered questions at Senate, Richardson said the resolution seeks transparency on a larger scale.

Discussions that occur in Senate tend to stay in Senate, and they are limited due to time constraints, according to Richardson. Increased transparency helps keep open communication between the two parties on a larger scale throughout the resolution process.

The resolution enumerates five issues, including: 

– A feeling that student concerns were not taken seriously by PS after voicing their complaints at Senate meetings; 

– Students worry about parking regulations, blue light maintenance, Public Safety Officer training, the “invasion of private living spaces” through residence hall walkthroughs and individual searches, and confusion regarding the jurisdiction of the Chestertown Police on campus; 

– A feeling that public policies are not enforced clearly and a want for the WC website and student handbook to be updated on current policies; 

-A “perception” that PS is enforcing policies more strictly than before without defining the policies or giving students a grace period for adjustment, creating distrust of PS; 

– And a desire for a stronger, more transparent relationship between PS and students. 

The resolution’s concerns often revolve around policy transparency and communication to students. While the Student Handbook enumerates policy on alcohol and drug usage by students, how PS enforces such policies is internal protocol.

Richardson said that students want to know those protocols so they understand why they are getting in trouble if the situation arises.

“It causes a lot of drift, a lot of tension between students and PS, because we don’t know what the policies are and what they should be doing,” Richardson said.

That tension partially derives from the perception that PS is acting stricter than in previous years. However, according to Krikorian at the Oct. 12 Senate meeting, there are not quantitively more cases being reported than before.

“I think a big part of coming back from COVID [is that] we, the sophomore class and the freshman class, have never been on campus before when these policies were enacted,” Richardson said. “So, knowing what the policies are and how they’ve been enacted, especially after being gone for so long, will help ease the tensions between [the students and PS].”

The sentiments felt at WC are also not unique to the College’s students, according to Krikorian, who has heard similar challenges from people in his network.

“We’re seeing issues with adjustments that are more significant than we’ve ever experienced. We have, in essence, two freshmen classes on campus right now and — quite frankly — even the administrators are out of practice,” Krikorian said. “So, I think we all need to give each other a little break, a little bit of grace, to work through things. When you see an issue, or have a concern, we should communicate that in a respectful and civil way.”

The resolution also puts forth six questions for which students desire answers, including: 

– How Officers are trained, especially regarding mental health crises, disabled individuals, and bias incidents; 

– What the specific “reasons and beliefs” that allow Officers to enter private spaces are; 

– How PS defines “reasonable cause,” including a list of scenarios that constitute reasonable cause; 

– What property can be searched by Officers; 

– What the sanctions for specific violations are;

– And what students can do if they do not feel that a PS search is justified. 

Some questions regarding reasonable cause, property searches, and responses to PS searches which students view as unjustified were partially answered at the aforementioned Senate meetings and through emails.

Regarding reasonable cause, Hoffman said at the Sept. 21 Senate meeting that this would include officers witnessing anything which would indicate a policy violation. For example, if officers saw open containers, solo cups, or a pong table, it might constitute reasonable cause to call a search to investigate a possible alcohol violation. 

Krikorian said at the Oct. 12 Senate that students who feel they were mistreated by PS should report that incident to him.

Other questions are in the process of being answered. Regarding sanctions, Krikorian said he created a flow chart to demonstrate which bodies might adjudicate a case based on the type of infraction and its severity. 

Hoffmann also described officer trainings to The Elm, saying that most officers are currently licensed Maryland Special Police Officers, which is a license that is renewed every three years. A few recently hired officers are not licensed and it is not required. 

Officers underwent a six-week field training component after being hired, familiarizing themselves with campus policies, call response, and procedures. They also underwent training for CPR, first aid, mental health calls, Narcan use, basic defensive tactic skills, and other topics.

Hoffmann said that current and future trainings include incident command systems, Title IX, and receiving an overview on the student conduct system. 

“Training is an ongoing and evolving process, and we’ll be looking at doing training for topics such as implicit bias, de-escalation, and more in the future,” Hoffmann said.

The resolution concludes with four suggested solutions to address these concerns and questions, primarily that:

– PS should solicit student opinions when considering new policies;

– PS should “seriously reconsider their current Residential Hall walkthrough policy,” because the halls are viewed as private and can be vulnerable spaces due to communal bathroom locations. Rather, they ask that PS use campus events and public spaces to engage with students;

– PS should work to improve their relationship with students;

– And that Richardson will work with PS and Student Affairs to appoint a student liaison for PS, who will report progress back to Senate and serve as the main point of contact for questions regarding the resolution.

SGA acted upon the final point, appointing President of the Class of 2025 freshman Stephen Hook as student liaison to PS. 

While SGA acted on one suggested solution, how the others will proceed is yet to be seen. 

The suggestion regarding the Residential Hall walk-through policy has been present in the semester-long conversation regarding PS.

Initially instituted to make PS more safety conscious, according to Hoffmann in a Sept. 23 Elm article, and create an opportunity for student-officer interactions through community policing, according to Krikorian, the policy was criticized for feeling like an invasion of private spaces.

“Every community is different…So, I think we can always explore how we do it, how do we make it palatable, or easier, or more comfortable, or whatever,” Krikorian said. “At the end of the day though, we also know that at a residential college, a residence hall is a primary location to impact the student experience. So, I don’t think taking that out as an option is also practice.”

Richardson said if students have any concerns, they can approach any member of SGA. 

“You know we want student voices to be heard, we want them to feel comfortable coming to us if they need anything, especially [regarding] PS,” Richardson said. “It’ll ease concerns instead of just being so frustrated about everything at once. Being able to let those frustrations out and trying to see something come of them would be beneficial for students.”

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