On September 17, an open forum for students was held with advisors from Margolis Healy and Associates, the consulting firm that has been conducting the ongoing internal review of Vassar Safety and Security’s current policies and protocol throughout the summer in light of recent incidents of prejudice. The forum was intended to give Margolis a firsthand sense of students’ feelings about the issues of safety on campus.
This forum was one of many conducted by the firm, who also spoke with staff and student representatives of the Vassar Student Association (VSA). While the representatives of the firm could not guarantee that any of the recommendations they would make would be implemented, they noted that since approximately one-quarter of the Security staff will be turning over at the end of this year, now is an optimal time to promote change within the College.
Margolis Healy and Associates, LLC, is a professional consultation service specializing in safety, security and regulatory compliance for academic institutions. According to their corporate website, they have dealt with a wide range of cases across various campuses in the Northeast, from Title IX issues at Penn State University and Swarthmore College to incidents of violence at Virginia Tech and schools in New York City.
The panel opened with the broadening of the terms “safety” and “security” by discussion leader and associate with Margolis Healy Dr. Stacey A. Miller. She said, “We want to get your perceptions as students about safety and security here at Vassar, and what we mean by safety and security is broadly: Like do you feel safe, and how secure is the campus, but also specific to the Department of Safety and Security, what your interactions and how you’ve experienced them as students here.”
Accounts of racial profiling were brought to the attention of Margolis Healy throughout the forum by many students, such as the controversy that arose last semester when the police were called to escort a group of African-American children from the library. The call to Vassar Security was for the purpose of reporting a noise complaint. But according to students at the event, when the children attempted to leave using their bikes, the police believed that they were stealing them and detained the children until they could produce identification.
Daniel Dones ’16 criticized the administration’s handling of the event. He said, “The response that we got from the administration was just very clumsy, muddled. They didn’t know how to respond. And that’s always, that’s always the story. They’re always asking us how to respond to it, and the steps aren’t taken preemptively to not get to that place.”
The forum also discussed the issue of a general feeling of insensitivity to students by Safety and Security. Nnennia Mazagwu ’17 spoke to this insensitivity, recounting a story in which security officers responding to a pulled fire alarm made a racially charged joke toward two African-American students attempting to follow fire protocol and leave the building.
She recounted, “‘Oh, so you were the cause of this,’ [the Security officer said] but very jokingly. And I feel like that’s so insensitive because there’s so much to the black experience and there’s so much to the fact that all the time black people have to act a certain way just so they can live in society, and making such a joke out of that, it’s ridiculous.”
Mazagwu used this experience to discuss necessary administrative changes. “I feel like security has to have training, or something…You have to watch what you say and watch what you do and how you behave in situations.” The call for sensitivity training for Vassar security was echoed throughout the forum.
Another concern mentioned was the lack of results that have come from campus-wide discussions of inequality and those critical of administrative actions. The firm representatives made it clear that their findings, while at times brutally honest, cannot guarantee two changes: One student asked if the firm would recommend the firing of any high-ranking administrators, to which a representative responded this was not their policy. Secondly, the group could not confirm that the College would implement any of their recommendations.
However, Managing Partner and Co-founder of the firm Steven Healy addressed this issue, attempting to provide hope for students. He said, “I think there is enough interest in the issue that you all are not going to let this go away, and I would say that I would challenge you to press the administration on what are the recommendations, what’s the timeline, and what are the things that are actually going to change.”
Only time will tell whether the review will be effective in responding to student concerns about safety and security on campus and providing practical solutions to these concerns.
Professor of English and Africana Studies and last semester’s Interim Dean of the College Eve Dunbar, though uncertain of what will come of the internal security review, looked to the review hopefully. Dunbar wrote in an emailed statement, “I do hope that the administration, faculty and students will continue to be mobilized in addressing the deep and long-held challenges the campus has faced (and will always face because equity is life-long work, not a solvable puzzle) in creating an environment that is inclusive and safe for all members of the community, regardless of race, gender, sexuality, class, etc. differences.”