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Campus Safety Director Ken Collamore responds to Student Union’s grievances

The following piece is the second part of the series regarding the role of campus safety at Bennington College. We sat down with the director of Campus Safety, Ken Collamore, and addressed the issues raised by the student union representatives from our first piece and obtained his comments (see here: https://thebeacon.bennington.edu/collegepolitics/student-union-on-concerns-about-campus-safety-at-bennington/).

The Student Union leaders have called for a dissolution of fines, considering it to be ‘classist’ and ‘disproportionately affecting low-income students,’ instead preferring systems of restorative justice. What is your comment on that?

“In one sentence, I completely agree with them. I think fines by their very nature are inequitable and impact different people in different ways and by that definition, it makes them unfair to the whole at the expense of a few. Having been trained in restorative justice (about a year ago this weekend, actually), I’m a big proponent and fan of restorative justice as a measure, opportunity and venue to revisit fire safety-related matters to reach the end goal. [But] from Campus Safety’s point of view, we have an obligation to the community as a whole, above and beyond any individual—for safety purposes. That being said, whatever measures, whatever system we could come up with that meets that obligation and that challenge, and that level of safety, I am all for it. Certainly, including restorative justice. I’m not a fan of fines at all! I don’t disagree at all with the comments made regarding it. This has come up before and a couple of years ago when this topic came up, the institution did make one change with the component of fire safety fines. There are two tiers. With regards to Tier One violations, the fine remains dormant contingent upon no further fire safety violations for the current academic year, and then it resets each fall. Any fire safety sanction within the same academic year by individual or same residential shared room, both sanctions will be applied. The following infractions are included in this tier: smoking in a building or smoking within thirty feet of a door or window, possessing prohibited items and or appliances in residential rooms including but not limited to the following: lit and unlit candles, incense, heat lamps, hot pots, coffee pots, any appliance, whether listed here or not, that exceeds a thousand watts, and possessing or using flammable materials among others (refer to the full list in Campus Safety document). These are flat-rate fines of two hundred dollars for a violation (not per item). All Tier Two fire safety violations, which include the following: tampering with fire suppression equipment and devices such as smoke detectors, fire extinguishers, sprinkler systems, fire alarm panels, fire alarm pull stations, starting fires intentionally, activating the fire alarm system intentionally and without probable cause, unapproved fires of any origin including bonfires, campfires, grill fires, any other fire code violation not listed here the college deems severe in nature. These fines are five hundred dollars. The rationale for this is due to severity and unsafe nature of the violation. Now back to the ‘fine’ piece (which is an ugly four-letter word, I say), let’s start with restorative justice which has so much promise. Let’s address these [issues] and then move away from fining, of which I would be completely supportive.” 

In response to the issue of hiring practices, particularly those of prison guards and ex-cops, Ken says:

“Hiring a cop or a prison guard doesn’t mean anything to me. I don’t stereotype people. I am certainly not going to sum up the totality of a person based on a previous career or a set of experience. And we have hired both. In both cases, I was just comfortable with the hiring of these individuals who had the ability to express and did express their desire to work in a community-based situation where the support services superseded enforcement, while those previous careers tend to be a lot more enforcement-driven with pretty strict black-and-white rules. [The officers] were looking forward to and had reached a point in their career that they wanted more meaningfulness out of their work and unequivocally here, everybody that’s worked at Campus Safety sees the engagement, in particular with the students and the entire community, as meaningful in its work. Certainly, the enforcement component is a very small part of what we do—a necessary function at this time but not the thrust of our work. So I am not going to be blind to any candidate who comes through experiences, whatever it is. How they digest that experience, how it affected them, the kind of person they are, how they can articulate why they would like to work here and how they envision working with this community means much more than titles of previous occupations. And I’m very careful not to and I think it’s unfair to judge somebody by any kind of title.”

Student Union representatives—and the larger student body—have called for an increased role in decision making, provision of harm reduction kits, and training of students in roles of de-escalation, as well as the responsibilities of Campus Safety of ‘wellness’ and ‘discipline’ being in conflict. Regarding these Ken said:

“First of all, that is not lost to me, that juxtaposition has been in place as long as I have been doing this work. It is fascinating and I have worked towards the ability to live in both worlds comfortably, but certainly not at the compromise or the expense of students. I can’t speak for students who feel uncomfortable because of the concerns they might have about punitive responses when they’re in need of help and support but we did build, maybe six years ago, a leniency policy. So if we get called to a scene for a medical concern, even regarding alcohol or drugs, we are not there to cite violations or to hold people accountable. The leniency policy is activated so to speak where there is absolutely no judgment, first of all. There better not be from my staff or me and secondarily there’s no formal documentation or punitive-related measures at that scene because of what we might see when we get there. Whether there’s a candle burning in the room that somebody is getting sick in or there is somebody standing there holding their beer next to the person who’s in need of some support. We are there for only one reason which is support however it is defined. If there are known circumstances where people receive fines in the midst of one of those occasions, by all means please bring it to my attention. I’m unaware of it and I will correct it.”

Regarding the demand for de-escalator roles, Ken says,

“I think that is a wonderful initiative. I absolutely support it and in all my time here, students have been doing that right along. I couldn’t name the number of times students have managed their conflicts. What we engage with is when we are contacted. The only qualifier I have is expertise and recognizing the need for additional expertise, whether it be medical or psychological (I think Dr. Randy or Counseling Services would speak better to that). At least I know and students probably know: we call the Bennington Rescue Squad (BRS) when we’re not sure what we’re looking at because there’s a lot of factors and there is a lot of science up there regarding that person’s health at that moment.  And it would be irresponsible of us not to [call BRS] when we get there, recognizing that we don’t know the entirety of someone’s health or someone’s safety [so we] bring in the next layer of expertise. And I guess I am saying this as a cautionary tale to students: I am all for the self-care and the self-governance regarding helping your peers. Period. Every time we’re not called, thank you! But it’s not fair to ask students to be put in a position where they may not have all the expertise for all the various circumstances that arise in that day.

“I don’t have the power or authority to decide in a vacuum how [de-escalator roles] should look or how that should be assembled—who gets hired, where the financing comes from. There’s a multitude of bureaucratic questions I don’t have the authority or really the insight to comment on. The idea and practice that students be trained specifically to manage and mitigate a variety of factors and incidents that occur is a wonderful idea and I actually support it. There is a lot of power when peers can take care of their peers. As long as you have a sense of recognition where you’ve met your expertise and where additional support [is required]. And I don’t necessarily mean campus safety, it could be the EMTs or psychological services, depending on the circumstances. And unfortunately, I cannot offer too much on the logistics to consider that proposal. I certainly would encourage the students to continue to bring that forward to the administration. I am certainly going to move that along and make it that that’s been asked about and continue to push on that topic and that endeavour.”

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