By Alaina Perdon
Elm Staff Writer
It is undeniable that a tense relationship has formed between Washington College students and the Department of Public Safety. Students have voiced their disdain for the organization by speaking out at Student Government Association Senate meetings and posting angry messages online. While individuals have every right to voice their opinions, some members of the student body have crossed moral boundaries, effectively worsening the tensions between DPS and students.
“The relationship was challenging before COVID-19 but has been exacerbated after the fact because we have new officers, a new head of the department, and new students who are unfamiliar with campus operations,” SGA President and senior Kat DeSantis said. “The relationship has further been worsened by a lack of communication on key policy changes and new practices.”
However, the relationship is worsening from both ends. The social media app Yik Yak is gaining popularity at the College. Yik Yak allows students to anonymously post their thoughts for anyone in the surrounding area to read. DPS is a common topic discussed on the platform, and while many posts are merely angry complaints, some users have gone as far as making death threats against members of DPS.
Frustration at the negative relationship is understandable, and an app like Yik Yak may seem like a harmless place to let out some of those frustrations. But these posts can be seen by the College administration and DPS, and they paint the student body in a negative light. By showing such disrespect towards the department, however, students make it more difficult for a friendly relationship to form.
“I would like to take a firm stance against the use of Yik Yak,” DeSantis said. “Especially since there were threats made against [Director of Public Safety Pamela Hoffman] which are being taken seriously by the school and by the Chestertown Police Department. I just don’t think this is an appopriate place to make any legitimate change.”
If students want change, they have to advocate for it in a productive manner, not antagonize the entities they feel hurt by. There are more appropriate outlets for this distaste and passion, such as SGA Senate meetings, which are open to the entire student body.
While attention-grabbing or spur-of-the-moment actions like heckling or spreading hate online provide instant gratification for the perpetrator, organized demonstrations garner respect and can lead to productive conversations.
According to the Public Safety Resolution submitted by the SGA on Oct. 19, “persistent student concerns about Public Safety’s lack of transparency, specifically in regards to training, approaches, and consistency of policy implementation” prompted intervention on students’ behalf by SGA.
According to DeSantis, SGA is working on a “multipronged approach” to bettering DPS-student relations, which includes writing the FAQ sheet that was circulated last week, creating the DPS resolution, and appointing a liaison who “plans to start with discussing ways to implement the recommendations contained in last week’s PS Resolution,” according to SGA Senate minutes from Oct. 26.
In the future, SGA plans to instate an open office hour or regular panel with College administrators where students can ask questions and voice concerns. These actions, as opposed to posting on Yik Yak or shouting at officers, will lead to positive change rather than inciting violence or perpetuating hatred.
While not every student is eager to participate in large campus groups like SGA, the support of such an influential organization has strong potential to bring goals to fruition.
Outside of the realm of advocacy, students should also be open to fostering positive relationships with DPS. The responsibility of initiating more positive interactions is on DPS, but the willingness of students is also necessary to make a healthy relationship possible.
“Public Safety created the fissure between us, so the responsibility to fix the relationship lies with them, but as students, we have to both extend the olive branch and accept it,” DeSantis said. “We just need to have an open mind — and it might be nice if students didn’t harass Public Safety officers and such — and be willing to have these conversations.”
Distrust and dislike of DPS is understandable given the conflicts at the beginning of the semester, but the situation cannot be improved unless both parties make the effort. Students cannot continue turning to destructive means to express their thoughts. DPS must make the first steps on the road to civility; however, students must be open to their gestures in order for a proper relationship to form.