Big Love Community College

Two-year institution near polygamous community wants law enforcement and social services off its campus, following claims that their presence discouraged enrollments from nearby fundamentalist sect.
February 20, 2009
 

A community college in rural Arizona is asking local law enforcement and social service groups to leave their office space on campus, following claims by the local polygamous community that their presence made the institution unwelcoming.

Mohave Community College’s Colorado City campus is located along an isolated patch of the Utah-Arizona border, near communities that house a high concentration of members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (FLDS) and other known polygamous religious sects. About five years ago, when the college moved its northernmost campus to Colorado City from Fredonia – about 30 miles to the east – it leased part of its property to the Mohave County government for its use.

The county uses the land to house an outpost for the offices of the sheriff and county attorney. Until recently, the county facility was also the office of Gary Engles, a special investigator for the county who helped piece together a sexual misconduct case against Warren Jeffs, the former FLDS leader and Colorado City resident who was jailed in 2006. The county also sublets some of its space to other state government entities and Defenders of Children, a nonprofit child advocacy group known for acclimating former FLDS members to the outside world.

Leaders of the polygamous groups, whose enrollments at the college have apparently been dropping, have made it known that they want the government offices gone.

“[The county offices on campus are] as welcome as a skunk at a picnic,” said Willie Jessop, FLDS spokesman, to The Salt Lake Tribune, noting that many polygamous students go to colleges further away from home to avoid the Mohave campus. “It is a central hub for any anti-polygamy program. That’s why they have to go to Cedar [City, Utah] when they could go right there in the community.”

College officials have informed county officials that they will not renew the lease for its offices on the campus – which must be vacated by April 1. They say, however, that the move was not solely based on complaints from the local polygamous community. Lynn Cundiff, the college’s vice chancellor for administration, claims that the county violated the terms of its lease by subletting it to outside groups, such as Defenders of Children -- something the county argues it had permission to do. This, he said, is the main reason the lease will not be renewed. Still, he noted that it was in the best interest of the institution to make all students feel welcome, especially if they currently did not.

“There was some concern about that [county] facility on campus, but that was not the only reason we decided not to renew the lease,” said Cundiff, noting that the college serves a significant number of FLDS members. “Our goal is to educate everyone. We serve everybody who will come, people on all sides of these issues. Still, if students have concerns in regard to their safety and health, any administration is going to listen.”

Enrollment at the campus has dropped by more than 50 percent during the past five years. Though some may attribute this to the presence of these law enforcement and social service offices on the campus – viewed as threatening to a community that has a large number of polygamists – Cundiff said the campus’ move from Fredonia might also account for some of the drop in enrollment.

Officials from Defenders of Children said they have gotten mixed reactions from the community about their presence. Donnalee Sarda, the group’s executive director, said the goal of the office was to provide locals with legal information about everything from their property rights to the authority of child protective services.

She noted that the group is not “anti-polygamous” but rather a child advocacy group that detests the practice of marrying “child brides” and often works with FLDS defectors in the process. Still, Sarda acknowledges that some FLDS and other polygamous sects have taken aim at her group for its association with Flora Jessop – a former member and outspoken critic of the FLDS who is releasing a book, Church of Lies, this week. Though she understands some of the distaste for her group in the Colorado City community, she said it is simply there to provide legal information to those who seek it.

“There’s a misunderstanding as to why we’re there among some people,” Sarda said of the group’s office near the community college. “We’ve been informed that we have to leave the property. If people want to use pressure on the college or the county to have us leave, that’s all right. But we’re not there to take someone’s women and children away. We’re there to provide legal assistance.”

Though she acknowledges that her group may be an unwelcome voice to some FLDS members of the community, she said her group will attempt to maintain its presence in the area.

“The outside world is considered ‘evil’ to the FLDS community,” Sarda said. “That’s their word, not mine. Our presence there is not evil but to bring information. If some people perceive it as a threat, then that’s their issue.”

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