Town hall-style meetings connect students and faculty

Last week, students gathered to hear several on campus a cappella groups sing for the first time with their new members during the tradition every Wheaton student knows as “Slype.” Shortly after VUJ began their set, Public Safety started forcing people off the street, creating an  awkward atmosphere throughout the crowd. As VUJ moved into the Everett Courtyard mid-set, students were confused and annoyed.

This incident, and others like it, caused students to hold two town hall meetings, one open only to students, the other with a panel of faculty to answer questions and clarify rules and policies. Emails were sent out stating the meeting’s date and its purpose: to allow students to connect with faculty about what the rules were and to state their opinions.

The first meeting was held on Monday, Feb. 9, and close to 40 students came to express their concerns for the administration to hear. Respect, communication, trust, and community were the main themes of the gathering, with many students articulating concerns with the way Public Safety officers have been treating individuals. In many cases, students have felt disrespected by Public Safety when they break up a party or address a difficult situation. There were a number of examples of officers entered houses without warning, which raised questions regarding invasion of privacy.

One student discussed an incident when Public Safety entered their house without notice or announcement. The officer walked in, looked around, and then proceeded to walk out without a word to the residents of the house. This kind of situation causes not just the residents of that house, but the entire student body, to question the intentions of Public Safety and how much respect they have for  students.

Respect was a topic that was brought up multiple times at both town hall meetings. The mutual feeling of respect between students and Public Safety officers has diminished over the past few years, as older students explained during both metings. One senior stated, “I used to tell people that Public Safety was one of the things I liked about Wheaton,” and many others agreed.

Another student shared a story about his anxiety around P.S. He was driving on Howard Street, and he recognized a Public Safety car. His initial reaction was to ask himself, “Am I doing something wrong?” This, he said, “shouldn’t be my thought process when I see P.S.”

The feelings of antipathy and tension have increased, and students and faculty alike are struggling to mediate the situation so everyone is on the same page.

On the Wheaton website, there is a clear description of the training that Public Safety officers undertake before becoming an officer. This training, and the extent to which it is actually enforced, was a topic of discussion at the second town hall meeting. One student directed a comment about the training toward the Director of Public Safety Charles Furgal. The student questioned whether officers had any specific training in not only the basics such as EMT/CPR training and fire safety, but additional measures such as bystander training and grievance support. Furgal began by explaining the officer training procedure, but after a quick, sharp response from the student, he amended his statement by saying, “The training isn’t good enough.”

In the crowded Hindle Auditorium, President Crutcher opened the discussion with a few words on the subjects of a holistic, fun community and social education. Dean  of Students Lee Williams followed by sharing her feelings on the issues discussed at the first meeting. The faculty had a sheet of notes explaining what students had talked about Monday night. “What I do, I do on behalf of the college,” said Dean Williams.

In addition to President Crutcher and Dean Williams, the faculty panel also included Associate Dean of Students and Director of Residential Life Kate McCaffrey, and Vice President of Finance and Administration Brian Douglas. A point made by the members of the faculty on the panel throughout the entire discussion was that many rules and restrictions enforced by the college must be enforced at the current level of intensity due to federal law. The school is responsible for each and every one of its students, and they will receive harsher punishments if they violate these laws.

After each member of the faculty presented their opening statements, students were invited to line up and share their questions, concerns, and opinions. Before long, there was a line of students filling the aisles to articulate their judgments on Wheaton’s alcohol policies. When the faculty shared stories of heartbreaking deaths due to heavy alcohol intake, there was an immediate silence throughout the crowd. A chilling ambiance was cast over every individual in the room as the thought of one of their friends losing their life due to alcohol crossed their minds.

As McCaffrey described her experience losing a student, she asked the student body what they hoped to leave Wheaton with. A diploma? Friends for life? Memories they will never forget? How about leaving with one less friend than you imagined? Silence again filled the room.

Faculty and students made many suggestions for  improvements and compromises in regards to the relationship between students, faculty, and staff. Adam Kilduff, Class of 2016 representative, proposed a separate meeting where students could brainstorm ideas to change policies, and there were many suggestions for a potluck dinner or a get-together with the new Public Safety officers. This would allow students to get to know the people who are  there to protect them and create a stronger relationship between the two parties, which is crucial to the overall safety and satisfaction of both students and officers.

The meeting concluded with a sense of accomplishment. Students, for the most part, felt they were given the opportunity they deserve to articulate their concerns and opinions on their school’s policies. Faculty and staff were allowed the same privilege, and hopefully this equal standpoint will lead to a decrease in tension. Faculty and students have to work together, or no improvement will be made. Or, as Dean Williams concluded, “We have to meet in the middle.”