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On college campuses around the country, student safety is a high priority. Particularly in urban settings, many universities go to great lengths to inform students and, more importantly, nervous parents, that they will be safe on campus. But whose safety is being considered in such a framework? And at whose expense?

In recent weeks, reports of instances of police being called on university students (or potential students) of color have surfaced around the country. In one case, the parent of a prospective student at Colorado State University called the police on two prospective Native American students, telling the police that they made her “nervous” and “didn’t belong.” In another, a white student called the police because a Black graduate student was sleeping in the common room of her dorm.

Of course white people calling the police on “suspicious” people of color is not a new phenomenon by any stretch of the imagination. But these recent incidents indicate that calling the police is becoming the new normal for “dealing with something you just don’t want to deal with or don’t understand.” In these cases, there are those who feel entitled to use the police in this way (usually white people) and those who are the population to be “dealt with” (usually people of color). This type of racism is (usually) not overt, but rather indicative of the implicit bias or “passive racism” held by white people in the United States.

The structural racism that makes this phenomenon possible can be tackled at the university level, in part, by returning to the mission of higher education and the obligation of the university to serve all of its students. In fact, this is the argument that students of color used in the 1960s to advocate for Black and Ethnic Studies programs, demand more faculty of color, and lobby for the inclusion of cultural centers on college campuses. Title IX advocates have also used this reasoning for years, arguing that high rates of sexual violence against women on college campuses make universities unsafe for women, and that the university has a responsibility to do better.

But it goes further than doing better for students. Many prestigious universities are geographically set in the heart of lower income communities of color (think Yale, Columbia, the University of Pennsylvania). If we understand the mission of the university in the broadest sense as one that seeks to serve not just its students, but the broader community (I love Adrienne Rich’s work on this topic), then we must be sure that community members feel safe in university environments - and this includes the janitors, housekeepers, and staff members who are members of both the local and university communities.

If you work on a college campus, here are some alternatives to calling the police on people of color that should be discussed in your classes, at your next staff or faculty meeting, and ideally at the next meeting of the Board of Regents (or similar).

At the individual level, educate yourself about violence against black and brown bodies. Consider taking this implicit bias test run out of Harvard. And, before you call the police, ask yourself:

  1. Would you call the police if the person was white?

  2. If you are alone and feeling unsafe, is there anyone you can call instead? (A co-worker, a supervisor, a friend?)

  3. If the person in question seems to be mentally ill, do you have the number of a university counseling service?

  4. What is the outcome that you are expecting by calling the police? If the answer is that you are calling because you are uncomfortable/don’t want to deal with something, think about other alternatives to the police, and/or why you are uncomfortable in the first place.

At the institutional level (i.e. Board of Regents), universities should consider:

  1. Instituting implicit bias training for university police, faculty, and staff.

  2. Issuing recommendations on alternatives to calling the police to university departments and offices.

  3. Exploring restorative justice rather than punitive approaches to policing on campus.

  4. Considering ways to hold people who call the police for false emergencies accountable. For example, false calls to fire departments result in a fine for wasting resources and time. Could the same be done for false emergency calls to university or local police?

These steps won’t solve this problem overnight, but they do move us towards ensuring that our theoretical responsibility to make the university a safe space for all becomes a reality.


Gwendolyn Beetham is the Assistant Editor of University of Venus and the Associate Director of the Gender, Sexuality, and Women’s Studies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Find her on Twitter @gwendolynb

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