Employees offer support in second community forum

River Branch, associate professor of communication arts, found out an Allegheny student was arrested for an alleged assault after another student came to her office, looking for support. Having “no idea” of the incident, Branch said she felt like she had failed to support that student in need.

“When I began to talk to colleagues and friends, none of my colleagues knew about it either, and so, I was in a position of really feeling a failure of supporting my students and being there for my students,” Branch said, during a community forum held at noon Monday, April 22, in the Henderson Campus Center.

Despite the lack of institutional support students have been feeling, Branch mentioned, the seats in room 301/302 were filled primarily by Allegheny employees and administrators who wanted to show their support and offer advice as the college moves forward with its response to the incident.

The second community forum was moderated by Dean for Institutional Diversity Kristin Dukes. Provost and Dean of the College Ron Cole and Dean of Students April Thompson answered questions about Allegheny’s action plan, following an initial forum held Friday, April 12, where Dukes and Thompson promised to create concrete action steps after listening to input from constituents.

A campus-wide email was sent at 8:35 p.m. on April 17, and detailed the concerns and themes voiced during the first community forum: Trust, safety, bias, action and support. In the email, Dukes and Thompson informed community members those concerns were heard by members of Allegheny’s Administrative Executive Committee. These members include Dukes, Thompson, Cornell LeSane, vice president for enrollment and dean of admissions, and Bill Ross, director of athletics and recreation. Other AEC members were also present during the second forum.

David Roach, ’21, voiced concern about “misinformation” being spread across Allegheny’s “small campus.” Roach suggested the college do its best to provide the college community with accurate information as quickly as possible in order to prevent rumors from spreading and from painting individuals in a “negative light.”

“Because it did happen in such a public setting, this campus is small enough that stuff was flying around, and a lot of it was misinformation, so I think that the sooner that information is released to the public, I think it’s better,” Roach said.

To respond, Thompson said Allegheny does “a lot of work to give agency to the student and their family,” before making public announcements. That work takes time, Thompson said — more time than the college would like.

“I’m very reluctant to announce public information or put out a statement when I have not yet spoken to students or their families, and that does take time,” Thompson said. “Usually, the narrative in social media, in particular, goes much faster than our ability to do that, but I think as parents and as students, you can be assured that the college is not going to go out with public statements that refer to you without knowing that you had a chance to at least weigh in … before we (release a statement).”

Faculty members were concerned with the student’s privacy, specifically pertaining to how the student was notified about the warrant issued for his arrest.

Irem Kurtsal, visiting assistant professor of philosophy, was the instructor who was teaching the student’s class when Interim Director of Public Safety William Merchbaker arrived to remove the student. During the forum, she clarified details about how the student was removed from her classroom.

“Public safety appeared at the door; the door was open,” Kurtsal said. “Public safety appeared at the door and called me out, saying it was important.”

Kurtsal went into the hallway and asked why the student was to be removed. After public safety gave Kurtsal the student’s name and asked if he was present, she said yes. The officer then told her there was a warrant issued for his arrest.

“I wanted to check their ID, and I did,” Kurtsal said. “And then in the process of doing that, the public safety officer was aware that I was dallying or not being very cooperative, and so he said the dean of students is aware of this, and he told me he was sent by the dean of students.”

While Kurtsal was reluctant to let the student leave with the officer, she decided that she “had to go along.” Once she made the decision to let the student leave, Kurtsal said she assumed the dean of students would be just as protective over the student as she was.

“We protect students,” Kurtsal said. “Our alarms go off. Our red flags go off when we hear about police intimidation into the campus.”

In her experience, Kurtsal said she is aware and sensitive to racial profiling and law enforcement scaring community members to carry out their duties.

“I assumed, being at Allegheny College, the dean of students would know,” Kurtsal said. “Then, I proceeded to just focus on (the student) and made maximum eye contact as lovingly and caring as possible, I focused on him and told him what was going on.”

The student asked Kurtsal why he had to leave; she explained, and he was then taken into the hallway where the public safety officer had a conversation “right outside our door” with him. This conversation sparked concerns about discretion and privacy in Kurtsal.

“I am unhappy with some of the wording that the security officer used during that conversation,” Kurtsal said.

No public safety officers were present during Monday’s forum.

“It wasn’t handled as discreetly as possible,” Kurtsal said.

In her opinion, Kurtsal said the officer did not have to say there was “a warrant out for your arrest” to the student or “because of what happened downtown.”

During the forum, William Bywater, Jr., professor emeritus of philosophy and religious studies, suggested this encounter should have occurred outside of the classroom and perhaps, in the professor’s office instead.

“I feel that it’s not the place, it’s not my office where this should have happened — at all,” Kurtsal said. “It was bad enough that I was the go-between, probably better than the security officer going inside the classroom, but it could have been a lot more damaging than it has been in my relationship with the student and with the rest of my students.”

Kurstal said she thought Thompson showing up outside of the classroom would have been a better way to alert and retrieve the student. Thompson told The Campus if she could go back in time and change how the situation was handled, she would be the one to go to the classroom instead of public safety. Thompson said bringing a public safety officer to retrieve a student who has a warrant out for their arrest is common practice at colleges and universities across the United States as it is a way to ensure the safety of others.

As part of the action plan developed after the first forum, Allegheny has committed itself to conducting an internal investigation of how the student was removed from class. The investigation will be led by Cole and Eileen Petula, executive vice president. In addition to the investigation, the college plans to develop written protocols for how and when public safety will engage with students in the classroom, athletic fields, residence halls and other on-campus locations by August 15.

In Monday’s forum, Heather Moore Roberson, assistant professor of community and justice studies and black studies, asked that the college work to support students who do not feel safe, saying that the incident affects “real people.”

Roberson referenced an email sent by President James Mullen on April 19. In his email, Roberson said there was an undertone that the student’s arrest may have been “a case of mistaken identity.”

“I am wondering, when this student is exonerated from these charges, what will be the institution’s response?” Roberson asked. “How will you ensure that students, especially students of color on this campus, feel as though the Statement of Community applies to them?”

In response, Cole said the incident affects the college in a “real and a visceral fashion.” Cole said if the student is exonerated, there needs to be a “clear, open, honest conversation” on Allegheny’s campus, with local police and with the Meadville community. Referencing Mullen’s email, Cole said Mullen heard that there may be additional information that has not been reported to law enforcement and wanted to urge any potential witnesses to come forward.

“Nobody has shared anything specific,” Cole said. “No other witnesses, that I know of, came forward … If this student is found exonerated then we do need to follow up with the City of Meadville in very proactive, direct ways about process and about how this might be done differently going forward.”

Forum attendees asked about potential violations to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act and how law enforcement was able to locate the student while he was on campus and also questioned if the college was ever presented with the warrant in order to prove its validity.

If an arrest warrant is issued for a student, the college is allowed to alert the student first before complying with the legal document or law enforcement, Cole said. After speaking with Allegheny’s lawyer and reviewing FERPA guidelines, Cole said the steps that were taken to remove the student from class “followed more or less” FERPA guidelines because there was no request for specific information about the student.

Going forward, Cole said the college is looking to implement clearer policies for how incidents like this should be handled, but Cole hopes the policies will never have to be examined for another situation.

“I hope this never happens again,” Cole said. “This is an incredibly sad situation all around.”

Celeste Carl, ’21, asked if a similar situation were to occur on campus, that students and employees be informed in a clear way that also respects the privacy of students,adding that she thought Cole and Thompson were talking “for” public safety.

“For me, part of the issue is that legality and people of color have not had historical meshing in this country,” said Soledad Caballero, associate professor of English. “And so, when we focus so much on what was legal in the most, sort of restrictive, sense versus on the spirit of the opportunities of the law, I think that’s kind of where I’m kind of having a problem.”

Caballero asked how the college knew if the warrant served was an official document.

“I think that when we have just these sort of glossed over conversations about legal documents, we are actually in quite murky waters, and I would like to know what our institution is going to do not to follow the letter of the law, which is complicated for people of color, but what is it going to do in order to protect the community beyond the law?” Caballero said.

To respond, Cole said FERPA guidelines and the language in laws and policies is “just not clear,” so leading up to the student’s arrest, Cole said he asked what documents and evidence had been presented to the college.

Thompson said the warrant would have been presented to public safety, and Merchbaker assured Thompson the document was “true and official.”

Under FERPA, if anyone asks for information about an Allegheny student or employee, people have the right to refuse to share information, Cole said.

“If you’re not presented with evidence for a legal document then you don’t have to answer that,” Cole said.

Moving forward, Cole said he is going to begin working with Catharina Coenen, professor of biology and biochemistry and director of faculty development, to see that college employees are aware of their rights when dealing with legal issues.

With that plan, Allegheny has committed itself to offer both employee and student information sessions about protocols when interacting with law enforcement during the 2019 fall semester as well as working to provide incoming students with FERPA information during summer orientation.

Thompson said Allegheny did its best to make sure the student had time to contact his family and inform them of the situation while also trying to navigate a “legal quagmire” and find a balance between the college, public safety, Meadville police and other legal policies. She also said the college has reached out to offer support both to the student who was arrested, his family and the other students who were present during the class the student was removed from.

Throughout the forum, attendees asked about the role of public safety and the Meadville police department while also asking about the relationship between law enforcement, people of color and racial profiling.

As part of Allegheny’s plan of action, employees who work in the Office of Student life — including public safety officers — are expected to attend mandatory sensitivity and bias training during the 2019 summer. In addition to these mandatory sessions, the college wants to collaborate with campus leadership in order to develop a plan to implement annual bias training.

Moving forward, Allegheny wants to continue to develop concrete and clear policies while maintaining the protection and privacy of its students and employees both on and off campus. With hope that a similar situation never occurs again, Cole said he wants the work dedicated to creating these policies to be a collaboration of student and staff voices — leaving guidelines that will prevent employees from feeling like they failed to support this institution’s students.