Allegheny to find new, permanent public safety director

Alex Weidenhof, Senior News Editor

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Allegheny College has formed a search committee to find a new leader for the Office of Public Safety, which has been without a permanent director since fall 2017.

Title IX Coordinator Gillian Ford heads the committee, which also includes, among others, Joe Hall, assistant dean of students; Gretchen Beck, associate dean of students for wellness education; and Alyssa Ribeiro, assistant professor of history and chair of the Campus Life and Community Standards Committee.

“It makes sense for me to be part of the committee (as Title IX coordinator), but I’ll be working closely with (Dean of Students) April Thompson,” Ford said.

Thompson said one of her main goals with hiring a new director of public safety is to ensure the position will be filled for a while.

“We’ve had some turnover in several key positions, and I think the community’s looking to stabilize that area, to make sure they’re fully staffed and someone gets to know Allegheny, gets to know our community,” she said.

A role of the committee, Thompson said, is to find out what it is that would motivate candidates to stay at Allegheny.

“Is it challenge in the job? Is it opportunity to do some things in and out of campus? Maybe they want to teach a class, maybe they want to get involved in the community, maybe they have a family and they want to get involved in the school system,” Thompson said. “I would look for what it is that motivates that person to want to stay, and finding someone who has some kind of connection here.”

The committee was formed in June, and Ford was appointed the head because she served as interim dean of students at that time, Ford said. She said the members of the search committee play an integral role in public safety’s responsibilities on campus.

“We feel like we have a really well-rounded group that is really well represented,” Ford said. “This position is important because it’s responsible for the safety of our campus, and it’s far-reaching in terms of collaboration.”

Ford said one important factor to look for in candidates is experience working in a safety role on a college campus. Although all public safety officers are sworn police officers, having gone to a Pennsylvania Act 120-certified academy, Ford said the expectations for police and campus officers are different.

“Their role is to keep our campus safe and healthy, where, I think, in a criminal role, their role is to maintain order,” she said.

I think the community’s looking to stabilize that area, to make sure they’re fully staffed and someone gets to know Allegheny, gets to know our community.”

— April Thompson, dean of students

Thompson described her view of public safety’s role as “community policing.”

“It’s about officers who get to know and engage with the community. And policing is less about patrolling and more about engaging students,” she said.

An opportunity that comes with the hiring of a new director is the chance to change the perception and role of public safety on campus, Thompson said. One such change may be having the director engage more with students via the office hosting discussions on topics important to the Allegheny community.

“It would be really great for all kinds of things, like personal safety,” Thompson said. “We can certainly host panels and other kinds of things about issues that have come up.”

Thompson said last year’s debate over students’ use of fake I.D.s would have been a good opportunity to have public safety address students.

“If there’s ever something bubbling on campus, some kind of an issue that crosses lines into safety, that crosses lines into legal issues, I think public safety will be our biggest resource,” she said.

Public safety is a part of Allegheny, Thompson said, and the office has an opportunity to engage in a tenet of the college: creating discussion.

“I’ve heard Allegheny is known for creating more dialog instead of less,” she said. “So let’s talk about it.”

In addition to having better relationships on campus, Thompson said the director should also extend into the Meadville community.

“I think that the director of public safety has to be a good partner. A good partner with city government — not just the police, but the city government in general — and working with the city manager, and working with neighborhood groups,” Thompson said.

She further described the role as being a “go-to” person for Meadville residents.

“If a community member has a need or has a question or wants to know how to get something done, that they know they can at least start with this person they know, that they met at an event,” Thompson added.

The previous director, Ali Awadi, joined the college in July 2016. Under his leadership, the Office of Public Safety expanded its reporting of crimes and began the Gator Patrol Service. Awadi did, however, have some controversial moments, such as acquiring ballistic vests from the City of Meadville, researching the addition of security cameras on campus and allegedly discussing arming officers.

Awadi left the college in fall 2017. A listing for the position was posted online June 1, 2018.

Since Awadi’s departure from Allegheny, public safety has had two interim directors. Sgt. Robert Wright served as interim director until his retirement in June, and Sgt. William Merchbaker has taken over the duties since Wright’s retirement.

Ford said the college has no definite timeline for the position to be filled — she said the search committee will discuss that — but the committee will not rush to fill the position.

“I don’t think it’s as simple as filling the role,” she said. “We want the right person for our campus.”

Overall, the college is eager to see if the new director will bring changes to the Office of Public Safety.

“As a member of this community, I’m very excited about this search, and I think we have some real opportunity here to have an engaged public safety office and program,” Thompson said. “I’d like to see that happen as we hire a new person, engaged with the whole community.

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