Students Voice Public Safety Concerns to External Review Associates

Note: Voices reached out to all students quoted in the article before publication and many of these stories are anonymized by request. No stories are included for which permission has not been obtained.

Last year, as a result of activism by Organizing for Survivors (O4S) that called for a review of the ways in which public safety officers treat marginalized students (survivors of sexual violence, LGBTQIA+ students, and students of color), President Smith ordered an external review of the Department of Public Safety. The review process, currently in progress, is a three day in-person process that will continue off-site for an unspecified amount of time and is being conducted by D. Stafford & Associates. In addition to meeting with college personnel for those three days, the reviewers had two opportunities to meet with students.

The first was a meeting organized by the College with Resident Assistants (RAs), Diversity Peer Advisors (DPAs), and members of the Student Government Organization (SGO) on November 5th. The reviewers have said they do not know how it was decided that these specific groups would meet with them. One student said he is a leader of a group that has been historically mistreated by Public Safety officers and did not know anything about the meeting. The reviewers later commented that they did not know any of the campus affinity groups, let alone who their leaders were, and were not told to meet with them.

Isaiah Thomas, Director of Residential Communities, sent an email to RAs inviting them to the meeting, and Michelle Ray, Director of the Diversity Peer Advisors, forwarded it to DPAs. Akshay Srinivasan ‘21 mentioned that SGO had emailed Gregory Brown, Vice President for Finance and Administration, and Michael Hill, Director of Public Safety, in order to get invited to the November 5th meeting. At the meeting, according to DPA Faith Booker ‘21, several students asked about the review process and about the law firm conducting the reviews. They also raised concerns about a range of topics, including drug and alcohol policies, amnesty for international and DACA students, the prevalence of officers on campus, mental health, and racial profiling. Booker noted that upon leaving the meeting, “I don't really know exactly what next steps are besides the report they'll release.”

On Tuesday, November 6th at 6pm, students gathered in Bond Hall for a meeting open to the entire campus where any student or faculty could voice concerns to the Public Safety external reviewers. This open meeting was only officially advertised to members of the campus community once, via a campus-wide email from Brown on October 22nd. The meeting took place for one hour on Election Night before polls closed. At this meeting, many students stated that they felt that the only public opportunity for students to speak with the external reviewers was not easily accessible, due to the chaos of Election Day and lack of advertisement.

A majority of the students who attended the meeting did so as part of a direct action by O4S. As O4S members walked in together, they had to add several more seats to the table than were put out initially. The lack of transparency about the meeting and external review process led to questions by students at the meeting about the legitimacy of the external review process itself: How will it represent students’ concerns if students can’t speak to the reviewers because of Election Day, or because of lack of awareness about the meeting, had they not seen the one sentence about it in Gregory Brown’s email on October 22nd? How will external reviewers evaluate the ways Public Safety treats marginalized students, the purpose for which the review was called, as one O4S member who attended the meeting repeatedly pointed out, if members of affinity groups were not invited to the meeting the day before? What does it mean to look at biases in citations if demographic information on who is cited isn’t collected? How will students not present at the two meetings voice their concerns if these were the only two opportunities to meet with reviewers? What weight will the recommendations hold if the review process isn’t conducted in a fair, thorough, and effective way?

To begin the open meeting, the reviewers explained that they are a college public safety consulting group that was invited to “help define the next chapter of Public Safety at Swarthmore.” They mentioned that there is no specific cause of the review, repeatedly describing it as “general.” After their introduction, members of O4S began to ask questions of the reviewers. Specifically, students asked if reviewers were at all informed about the O4S activism that prompted the review, to which they replied that they had heard about this from college administrators.

Throughout the meeting, students shared stories of mistreatment and discrimination by Public Safety officers. The external reviewers noted that they are collecting complaints and “reviewing related documents.” Although this was officially advertised as an open meeting, student concerns expressed at the meeting were rather intimate, so prior to writing this article, Voices reached out to specific students to get permission to share their stories in this article. No stories are included for which permission has not been obtained. These are some of the experiences of wrongdoing that were shared at the meeting:

Highlighting racial disparities in treatment of students, an anonymous Black student shared that he and a white friend were caught smoking. Currently, he is undergoing an administrative review, information for which he received nearly a week ago. As of writing this article, his white friend has not been asked to undergo an administrative review.

Another Black student shared that typically when he has been locked out of his room, Public Safety has asked for his college I.D. However, at one point he was locked out of his room with a white friend and Public Safety did not ask for his I.D. At this point, Emma Walker ‘20, a Black woman, said she thought it was Public Safety policy to always ask for I.D.s, and many people of color in the room expressed agreement. Several white students spoke up and said they had never been asked for their I.D.s.

This student also shared that, as the leader of a group on campus, he often has to call Public Safety and ask for entry into a particular space. Often, officers tell him that he is not granted permission to enter that space. He also noted that this does not happen to his white and Asian coworkers who can easily enter these spaces at will.

Another student brought up that Public Safety chose to have a fire safety event during an event hosted by Native American students, detracting attention from the event.

A theme expressed in stories shared at the meeting was officers being dismissive of and lighthearted about issues of sexual violence and suicide. An anonymous student shared that her friend had overheard an officer knock on someone’s door and say, “I hope nobody’s getting raped in there.” Yet another student shared that Public Safety officers laughed at her and her friends repeatedly when she told them that another student was missing and that she was concerned about the student’s wellbeing.

According to students at the meeting, Public Safety also has a history of disregarding gender identity and ignoring accessibility concerns. Istra Fuhrmann ‘19 shared a story from a disabled trans student who has since transferred out of Swarthmore. Two years ago, this student requested a ride from Public Safety to an off-campus house. Although providing escorts is Public Safety policy, the officer said there was a list of disabled students, who were all men, and therefore did not include this student, so the officer could not give him a ride. As a result, this student – who is a man – had to prove his disability and identity over a phone call in order to get a ride home, leaving him, in the words of his friend, “humiliated and frustrated.” Another student brought up an instance in which a Public Safety officer made a transphobic comment while walking by a trans students.

An anonymous student who could not make it to the general meeting recently sent Voices a copy of communications between himself, the Director of Public Safety, and his Residential Community Coordinator. After a knee surgery, he requested assistance with getting around campus, to which the Director of Public Safety commented “public safety is not a cab service” (sic). The anonymous student wrote to Voices, “public safety cannot communicate with students respectfully.”

The question was raised –  “who is Public Safety protecting?” Students then began to share stories of officers expressing camaraderie with certain groups on campus while having antagonistic relationships with others. To illustrate this point, a student alleged that members of the fraternity Phi Psi had played beer pong with a Public Safety officer. In the middle of the meeting, a video of this incident was pulled up and shown to the reviewers. They had not seen this footage before students brought it up.

Morgin Goldberg ‘19 also shared that a former student verbally threatened her and as a result was not permitted to be on campus. When he was seen on campus, an officer was overheard saying to him, “Hey, I know you’re not supposed to be here, but don’t tell anyone I saw you,” and allowing the student to pass.

Many students raised questions about the process of reporting Public Safety officers, expressing concern about having to report Public Safety officers to higher ups in Public Safety, who have at times perpetrated the very harmful behavior that necessitates reporting. The question “who is Public Safety accountable to?” was raised. One student shared a story from when she reported a Public Safety officer for harmful behavior. Her experience was talking to the Associate Director of Operations who said they were conducting an investigation. The entire investigation consisted of asking the officer if the incident in question had happened. This student also shared that the Associate Director and Director of Public Safety held a meeting with her, during which the Associate Director leaned over a desk and screamed at the student. When she said “please lower your voice, you’re screaming,” the Director said “he’s not screaming he’s just passionate.” The reviewers at the meeting asked if students were aware that they could report Public Safety officers to Human Resources. Many students answered that they were not aware of this fact and did not know how to begin the process.

Another example of this behavior was when Goldberg’s contact restriction was mishandled and she had a three and a half hour restorative justice conference with Public Safety and an external facilitator. The officer said she was too drunk and upset to give correct information on her experiences of sexual assault at the time she reported them, dismissing her concerns. The student believes that the officer was later promoted.

With stories like these, it became clear throughout the meeting that there are two major issues with Public Safety: first, that they consistently prioritize certain students while mistreating others and second, that there is no effective mechanism for accountability when officers don’t behave appropriately.

When questioned about how they are measuring bias, the external reviewers did not have a concrete answer. They simply said they are reviewing documents provided to them by the College, bias incident reports, and complaints students have filed. Students also asked if the reviewers would be reaching out to people who filed bias incident reports against Public Safety officers. The reviewers said that they were not at this time.

Many of the concerns students expressed dealt with specific incidents with Public Safety officers. As many students commented, the issue lies with how marginalized groups interact with Public Safety at large and the lack of accountability for biased actions. As one student noted, “Who do you report [complaints about Public Safety officers] to? Mike Hill? He’s not very helpful. Greg Brown? Nobody can get in touch with him.” The reviewers asked if students would like an 800 number to call someone off campus to report officers. Students shared concerns that when reports about incidents with Public Safety are made, there is a lack of follow-up. The external reviewers commented “we want to make sure you have a location to go to, a mechanism that you can complain to, and assurance that you’re getting feedback and closing the loop and it’s not going into a vacuum.” While many students expressed the importance of an effective reporting mechanism, they also stressed the importance of knowing “what happens after the report.” Furthermore, beyond reporting harm caused by Public Safety officers, students inquired about how to prevent harm from occurring in the first place. No clear methods were provided to do so.

Next steps are unclear in the review process. The reviewers provided contact information and shared that they would like to hear more from students. Ultimately, the reviewers will make a report that will include recommendations for the College. The associates shared that they do not have a timeline for this report.

Without a clear plan for moving forward, students feel confused and frustrated. During the meeting, one student said “this is a bogus way of doing a review.”  Fuhrmann commented that after the open meeting, she felt hopeful. It was “not because I have any faith in the review process itself,” she said, “but because people in O4S spoke so eloquently and I think we made ourselves a force they couldn’t ignore.”

The contact information for one of the associates, which he provided for all attendees at the public forum, is listed below. If you have experienced wrongdoing by Public Safety, you may email Associate Bill Lafferty of D. Stafford and Associates to report it to the external reviewers:

Bill Lafferty – Blafferty@NACCOP.org