In 1996, Oberlin College’s on campus security force, then known simply as the “Department of Security ,” was re-branded with a kinder and gentler (if slightly wordier) title : The Office of Security and Safety. Last fall , the same on- campus Keepers -Of -The- Peace underwent yet another verbal makeover, morphing this time into the “Office of Campus Safety.”
Does anyone detect an emerging theme? Is it possible that something about the word “security” makes Oberlin students feel unsafe.?To be sure: the phrase “secure space” doesn’t land quite as gently on the ear as the infinitely more fashionable “safe space.” The word “secure,” after all, is more likely to conjure up post-9/11 images of Dick Cheney sheltered in a “secure, undisclosed location.”
But maybe I’m making too much of an essentially semantic distinction. The Oxford English Dictionary assures us that the two “S” words (“Safety” and “Security”) can be used interchangeably. But is it then merely a coincidence that Oberlin’s Campus Security Office has been renamed not once, but twice, over the past generation, in ways that progressively elevate the word “safety” at the expense of the word “security”?
No. It’s not a coincidence. This change in nomenclature reflects the newly privileged status of the phrase “safe space” in virtually all aspects of current academic life, curricular as well as extra-curricular. Indeed – in academia—( if nowhere else ) the word safety has acquired a new matrix of meanings that have little or nothing to do with conventional, dictionary definitions of either safety or security: (e.g. protection against bodily harm, freedom from legitimate fear of external threats).
In December of 2014, then President Krislov assembled a committee for the purpose of recommending ways in which Oberlin’s Campus Safety and Security officers might improve their overall performance (or at least, their overall image ) in the eyes of the student body. The goal, In other words, was to bring Oberlin’s S and S squad into compliance with the new conception of what it means to be “safe” on campus.
According to the Review ,
“The committee’s recommendations included mandating ‘cultural, ethnic and gender identity sensitivity training, finding ways to encourage non-confrontational interactions between Safety and Security and other members of the community…. The report also urges using less threatening, ‘non-paramilitary uniforms’ that would ‘further emphasize their support purposes over policing.’ One of the proposed changes includes updating the name to Safety and Support Services.”
To those who live outside the protective bubble that encircles Oberlin College, some of these suggestions—especially the sartorial ones—will sound like proposals for a Monty Python sketch. But could John Cleese or Michael Palin have come up with anything funnier than the actual words of Marge Burton, then director of Oberlin Safety and Security (who was eager to assure The Review that “some of the suggested initiatives had already been preemptively attended to…. such as the creation of ‘softer,’ less police-like uniforms.”
Given that Oberlin safety officers are unarmed, it’s not unreasonable to insist that their uniforms not be easily confused with those worn by the Men -in -Blue (who do carry sidearms.) But must we dress them in baby blue?
For the most part, the Krislov recommendations focus on what Oberlin S and S should not be: that is: they should neither look nor act like Police Officers. But with regard to what they should be (i.e. what we want these college employees to actually do….) the report is distressingly vague. All we’re told is that the new and improved S and S should “emphasize their support purposes over policing.” But what, in actual practice, does that mean?
One possible answer to that question can be found in a diplomatically worded message from Oberlin Campus Safety e-mailed to the entire student body three days after classes resumed this semester:
September 6, 2019
The Office of Campus Safety has received several inquiries about the Oberlin Police Department issuing jaywalking tickets to students and others crossing West Lorain Street between the Science Center and Wilder Hall.
The police department has reported that they receive daily complaints from the public that students and other individuals ignore the traffic laws by not crossing at the designated crosswalks located at Woodland Street and North Professor Street where they meet West Lorain Street. The complaints usually involve people stepping into the roadway in front of approaching traffic or not yielding to vehicles, which have the right of way.
Campus Safety has made efforts to encourage our community members to follow the traffic laws for their own safety. When our community members continue to not yield to motor vehicle traffic, they put themselves and motorists in danger.
The police department’s decision to enforce the pedestrian traffic laws are intended to discourage the unsafe practice and save lives. West Lorain Street is a state route as well as a city street and it would be inappropriate for Campus Safety to contact the police department to discourage them from enforcing the pedestrian laws. The police have set up barricades to remind people that the area is not a designated crosswalk.
Office of Campus Safety
140 West College Street, Suite C
Oberlin, Ohio 44074-1575
Long story short: Students are raising a ruckus over the fact that Oberlin city police have been allowed — for the very first time —to issue jaywalking tickets to students who can’t be bothered to use the designated crosswalk on W. Lorain leading from The Science Center to Wilder Hall. A few days later (on Sept 13th) , The Oberlin Review covered the ensuing controversy in an article that began on the front page. It quoted a number of aggrieved students , including a senior, Buster Coes, who complained “I’m from New York City where we jaywalk all the time. It didn’t even register to me that I could get a ticket for jaywalking.“
David Mathisson , a second year student, sounded even more upset: “When everybody was getting ticketed for jaywalking, there was a lot of frustration, anger, and energy ….” he complained. But unlike Coes, who seemed content merely to register his indignation , Mathison was determined to do something about this moral outrage. And according to the Review,
“ Mathisson organized a Collective Jaywalking event on Facebook in hopes that students could all gather and illegally cross the street at the same time as a form of protest. “
In other words, Mathisson didn’t just talk the talk. He walked the (jay) walk. And in so doing, he demonstrated that social justice remains a high priority for Oberlin students– in spite of dire predictions that the Gibson verdict might exert a deterrent effect on campus activism. One can only imagine how Mathisson—had he been an Oberlin student in November of 2016—might have responded to the arrests of three fellow students outside of Gibson’s bakery. Perhaps he would have organized a mass shoplifting event, with the higher purpose of persuading town police that Oberlin students should not be subject to the same penalties that are routinely imposed on every other adult caught violating town ordinances.
But the problem isn’t just that Oberlin students crave immunity from the long arm of the law. The deeper problem is the means by which they hope to achieve that protection. And this in turn helps answer our question about what Oberlin students expect from the Office of Campus Safety.
There’s a remarkably revealing sentence in the 2014 edition of College Prowler, one of those guidebooks that college-bound high school students and their parents consult when deciding which schools to apply to. In the section devoted to Oberlin Campus Safety , the editors quote a student who confidently explains that “Safety and Security are there to protect you against the Police.” *
In other words, when it comes to “situations” like the recent jaywalking controversy, students expect (or at least, hope) that Campus Safety Officers will, if necessary, actively intervene to “protect” them from unwanted encounters with the Police. Why else, in the Sept. 6th e-mail from Campus Safety announcing the new jaywalking policy, would they have felt compelled to remind students that “it would be inappropriate for Campus Safety to contact the police department to discourage them from enforcing the pedestrian laws?” Wouldn’t that be obvious to any reasonable person who isn’t wrapped in the Oberlin bubble? And would the e-mail have even broached this awkward subject if Campus Safety hadn’t been receiving requests (or demands!) from students to prevail upon the Police to stop issuing citations for jaywalking?
But if you’re still skeptical about the proposition that—at the end of the day– what Oberlin students REALLY want is for Campus S and S to “protect (them) against the Police,” allow me to direct your attention to yet another Oberlin Review article about an earlier law enforcement controversy.
In November of 2015, three students were ticketed by members of the State Highway Patrol for underage drinking. It’s worth noting that this incident occurred almost exactly one year before the Gibson protests. And with the benefit of hindsight, the Review’s account of this dust- up reads like a prophetic warning about the debacle that would unfold twelve months later. The story, published in the November 20, 2015 edition of the Review, was titled “Students Ticketed by State Police at ’Sco” ; and it focused on the travails of one of the three students who were cited for drinking underage:
“College sophomore Alizah Simon unsuspectingly encountered undercover state police officers outside the ’Sco on Friday night. For carrying a Pabst Blue Ribbon beer, Simon was confronted and ticketed by the two officers…. Since Oberlin is traditionally a laidback campus that generally doesn’t punish or investigate students for underage drinking, Simon said she was very surprised by the incident. ‘It felt really arbitrary. It’s a college campus, obviously kids are going to be drinking underage,’ said Simon. ‘If you’re state police, don’t you have something better to do? The ’Sco always felt like a safe place to be casually drinking, so I’ve been a little on edge all week.”
Now…it neither shocks nor surprises me that an underage student would be spotted carrying an open beer can on the sidewalk outside the Student Union. (I’ll save my moral indignation for those who commit mortal, rather than venial, sins.) But it’s worth noting the way in which Ms. Simon uses the word “safe” to describe the ‘Sco as a space in which underage students feel free to drink alcohol without fear of disciplinary consequences.
Still, the real scandal is that Ms. Simon (and others) were so indignant that Campus Security hadn’t…somehow… “protected “ her from those State Highway Patrol busybodies (who just happened to be driving past Wilder on Rt. 511 late one night when they noticed what appeared to be illegal consumption of alcohol.)
According to the same Nov. 20th story in The Review:
“Student Senate Liaison Megs Bautista, said that Safety and Security should have done more to prevent the police from investigating students. ‘If [the College is] looking to be proactive in student safety, they should’ve stepped up and had S&S officers intervene… because now they’re wrapped up in all this legal bullshit….I find these manipulative and coercive tactics extremely unsettling and deplorable, and my heart goes out to the students affected by such an abuse of power and an abuse of the law.’ Bautista said.
And this isn’t just any old student speaking. This is the co-chair of Student Senate, official “voice” of the Oberlin student body. Whether or not Ms. Bautista truly speaks for a majority of Oberlin students, I cannot say. But clearly, she exudes the aura of arrogant entitlement that much of the “outside world” has come to associate , however stereotypically , with “OBERLIN STUDENTS.”
To those who believe in common sense, Oberlin Students (with or without quotation marks) often appear to be living in an alternative Harry Potter-like universe where Campus Safety Officers are expected to place a protective “cloak of invisibility” around them, thereby, immunizing them against the piercing gaze of the State Highway Patrol and the Oberlin City Police. Anyone who wonders why this College has become synonymous in the popular imagination with Aristophanes’ Cloud Cuckoo-Land need only glance at the following letter to the editors of the Oberlin Review. It was written by a resident of Avon Lake, Ohio who happened upon the Review essay I’ve just been quoting from:
“I was in Oberlin this last weekend and picked up a copy of the Nov. 20 edition of The Oberlin Review. What caught my interest was the article, ‘Students Ticketed by State Police at ’Sco,’ What is troubling to me, and I hope to other responsible Oberlin administrators, faculty, students and local residents is what appears to be the ‘Oh well’ attitude by the offenders and individuals mentioned in the article. What the three students did was illegal — they were caught and will have to answer for their behavior. This is what happens in a society governed by laws. Likewise, we should expect college students, who will hopefully graduate, to conduct themselves in a manner that will be expected of them once they leave school and move on with their lives.”
There is every reason to believe that the author of this letter “speaks” for her Avon Lake neighbors in much the same way that Student Senator Megs Bautista speaks for the majority of her fellow Oberlin students. And even though this letter was published twelve months before the Gibson incident , its comments about the three underage drinkers outside the ‘Sco in 2015 are equally applicable to the would-be shoplifters a year later.
Avon Lake by the way, is located about 20 miles N.E. of Oberlin and a mere fourteen miles from downtown Elyria, where the “Gibson’s Bakery vs. Oberlin College” trial took place. As a small town in Lorain County with a population about two and half times that of Oberlin’s , Avon Lake was –in all probability—home to at least some of the Lorain County residents who were summoned as potential jurors for the Gibson trial last May.
The toxic seeds that would eventually blossom into the Gibson fiasco were planted even earlier. But they were fertilized and cultivated every time Oberlin students were granted –implicitly or explicitly—immunity from the ordinances intended to regulate all adult behavior throughout the entire city of Oberlin. The arrogant assumption that these regulations either do not or should not pertain equally to Oberlin students was surely one of the reasons the Jury came down so hard on the College in both its verdict and its recommendations for damages.
Indeed, throughout the course of the trial, nothing proved more shocking than revelations about the sheer number of times (not to mention, the sheer number of ways) College administrators attempted to actively interfere with the efforts of Oberlin Police, prosecutors, and judges to do what society-at-large expects of them: enforce the law, without fear or favor. It all comes down to this: No one—neither Donald Trump nor Meredith Raimondo nor any of the approximately 2,800 Oberlin Students is above the law. (To be continued…..)
* “Calling the police” (rather than Campus Safety Officers ) in response to disturbances on-campus is the third rail of Oberlin College politics. Not even Oberlin College Presidents are exempt from this unwritten, but axiomatic, prohibition. (S. Frederick Starr found that out the hard way in 1990.)