All but two members of Wheaton College’s on-campus police force, Public Safety, were recently laid off by the administration and replaced with a private security firm. On Jan 11., Public Safety partnered with the Securitas Security Company, described as “a national and global organization with expertise in providing campus security at educational institutions, to manage all other staffing,” announced to the Wheaton community through an email from Meghan Kass, Vice President for Finance and Administration.
Public Safety, according to the school’s website, works on matters related to parking, lost and found, identification cards and the general safety of the Wheaton campus community. Under Chapter 22C, Section 63 of the Massachusetts General Laws, Public Safety officers are given the same power to make arrests as municipal police officers for any criminal offense committed in or upon lands or structures owned, used or occupied by Wheaton College. The announcement reaffirmed that the two officers remaining, Director Rob Winsor and Lieutenant Roy Mulcahy, would retain the same powers, and would serve as leadership for the new officers.
The announcement stated, “[The] new model is one that arises out of broader discussions on and off-campus that have been taking place for some time. In recent years, the role of Public Safety officers on college campuses has changed significantly, especially as it relates to health and wellness needs. The college used feedback from many parts of campus to shape this new model, and has engaged in conversations with outside experts to help build something that will more effectively meet current needs. We have also connected with several other colleges who have successfully undertaken similar transitions to learn from their experiences,” suggesting an increasing emphasis on mental health support and a better partnership with Public Safety, Student Affairs, and other campus offices.
The stated goal of the reorganization was the hope of creating a more collaborative and comprehensive approach and response to safety preparedness, student crisis outreach and emergency management, which the announcement insisted was not driven by a desire to cut costs.
Prior to this, The Sun Chronicle published an article with the news on Jan. 4, reporting that the private security firm hired was Securitas Security. The article suggested that the move was a response to the recent unionization, citing Dean Junior College in Franklin as precedent and stating that Wheaton’s Public Safety had unionized two years prior.
Shortly after, several students authored an email to the administration, sent on Jan. 6, laying out their two key points of concern. The first concern was the alleged anti-union position the college appeared to be taking, as the email pointed to Securitas Security’s links to the Pinkerton Agency. The email suggested that the Pinkerton Agency is most known for their work strikebreaking, historically described as the “paramilitary wing of big business,” with the students expressing their distaste at this chosen affiliation for the college. The second was for the Public Safety officers’ wellbeing, given the economic instability caused by the pandemic.
The student email to administration asked that the college provide, “information on the contents of this new contract between Wheaton College and Securitas and to provide the student body with a public forum to raise their concerns with the administration as well as our new campus security about the future campus climate.” In addition, the students asked for reassurance that, “the officers who have been let go are being supported by the college either through resources to help them from positions elsewhere, or possibly the option to work as a member of the Securitas Security staff with equitable pay and benefits,” as well as, “demand[ed] assurance that these officers are provided with ample notice in order to find other employment opportunities and provided with support from Wheaton as they transition out of their position.”
As of the publishing of this article, the administration had not yet responded to this email.
Micheal Metz ‘21 and Victor Trepainer ‘22 expressed thoughts along the lines of the email, with Metz suggesting that there were likely several reasons for the replacement, but Wheaton’s possible harsh reaction to unionization was disturbing, with the Pinkerton agency angle making the situation even more unsettling. Trepainer suggested that Public Safety required drastic change, but the replacement in the middle of the pandemic with a security force unfamiliar with the school was deeply concerning, prompting deep worry for fellow students.
“Despite calls for police reform, I don’t think any student was asking for Public Safety to be replaced with a shady private security agency,” said Carter Wilhite ‘22.
Some students thought differently, suggesting that the replacement allowed potential for a stronger relationship between the students and the on-campus security. With even the aforementioned email referring to the relationship between the students and public safety as “strained in recent months,” one student suggested that they believed it was a step in the right direction. They said, “I hope that with the hiring of Securitas, a company known primarily for mall security and office building protection they can focus on building back the trust that Public Safety broke between Wheaton College and the student body. Securitas may have acquired Pinkerton, a company rightfully shamed for anti-union practices, but we are not hiring Pinkerton as they are still a separate institution, albeit a subsidiary of Securitas…I feel more comfortable with Securitas than I do with Public Safety and their numerous unconscionable failures towards the Wheaton Community.” They continued, “Unionization is a great idea, however when it allows for a system that encourages officers to escape accountability for misconduct that is unacceptable. Wheaton needs mutual trust between students and staff, crossing guards, accessible mental health services, and responsibility when handling violations and crimes. My experiences are far from the worst regarding [Public Safety] overstepping boundaries and harassment within the community.”
Several students, including Wilhite and Trepainer, expressed a desire for transparency in the college’s communication regarding the issue. Eva Danielson ‘22 pointed to the publishing of the Sun Chronicle article ahead of an official statement from the college as possible explanations for student confusion and consternation, as well as the personal research and speculation many students engaged in.
The Norton Police Department’s Chief, Brian Clark, spoke of their historically good working relationship with the women and men of Wheaton Public Safety along with the administration at Wheaton College, stating that their goals, “have always been and will continue to be to provide support and assistance as requested to maintain the highest level of safety and security for the Wheaton Community including students, staff and faculty.”
Chief Clark affirmed, “We will continue to support and assist Director Windsor and Safety officials as requested and necessary.”
Cheylsea Federle, SMART Program Coordinator, said, “My role with Public Safety, or anyone on campus responsible for being a first responder when violence occurs, is to provide training to those people so that they are equipped with the skills to handle the situation with a trauma-informed approach. Regardless of who is meant to uphold safety on our campus, I will provide education and training to help those officers best support our students.”
Several students spoke about working relationships they had developed with Public Safety that they were disappointed to lose.
The advisor for Student Life and Services, an SGA-affiliated group that worked with Public Safety, spoke with disappointment of their plans to improve relations between Public Safety and students and increase transparency of the activities carried out by Public Safety. “We had set up a ‘get to know your officers’ media plan for this semester and for the photos to be on InsideWheaton,” they offered as an example of the work they had been doing. Another member of the group hoped that the Private Security company hired would be committed to upholding the college’s honor code and open to having complex discussions with the student body on important issues.
Taylor Kaufman ‘20 said, “As an RA, I would not have been able to effectively do my job and respond appropriately to crises if I did not know and have a personal, working, relationship with PS. Being able to respond to an emergency situation or crisis and know who the dispatcher is and the responding officers greatly influenced my ability to provide resources.”
Another RA, Eliza Browning ‘22, added, “I’m concerned about starting a new RA position midyear and in the middle of the pandemic with the added concern of working with a private security company. I have no knowledge or experience working with the new security guards and have doubts about their ability to adequately protect the Wheaton student body.”
A third RA, Eva Danielson ‘22, agreed, saying, “I’m concerned about how abrupt this change was. Residential Life has done a lot of work to ameliorate the relationships between RAs and Public Safety, and I’m curious to know how this relationship will change when the private security company is here. The fact that these strangers will come onto campus before we have been told anything about how their pretense on campus will work is very alarming to me.
Danielson continued, “Although there were problems with Public Safety, they’ve been here quite some time. I’m antsy about knowing the hiring process for these new private security guards. I trust Wheaton, and their choices in Public Safety officers who have access into campus spaces, and hold the keys to our residence halls and bedrooms. The fact that the new security will be outsourced is unsettling to me, because as of Monday someone who doesn’t have a relationship with this campus will now have a key to my room, and that’s a bit bonkers.”