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Student Union on concerns about Campus Safety at Bennington

This article is a part of a series regarding student concerns about the role of Campus Safety at Bennington. In part I of this series, Student Union representatives Karlyn Ellis and Every Jennings discuss their perspective on issues regarding Campus Safety. Part II will provide a platform for Ken Collamore, director of Campus Safety, to respond to the grievances highlighted by Ellis and Jennings (see here:

All opinions/statements belong to the student union representatives.

Could you give me a brief introduction to the Student Union—How it came into being, the reasons for its formation, its goals and objectives, and its present structure?

Jennings: It started two years ago, in the spring of 2017. It’s been a lot of things and done a lot of things. Our mission is to represent the needs and demands of the students and hold the administration accountable to those demands. We are a pretty decentralized organization and have a system of elected roles that are more about facilitation than power. People (representatives) are responsible for the bottom lining and making sure that tasks get done. For example, strategically I make sure that our core strategy meetings happen every week. And I make sure that the people who are in other leading roles have the support that they need to do their work. 

Ellis: Right now my role is the working group lead of the campus abolition working group which is about dealing with fines, restorative justice and Campo. Basically I am sort of the mini strategic lead of this working group which means that I am in a facilitation role. I make sure that meetings happen, set the agendas and facilitate the meetings. I also liaise with strategic lead (Jennings) and Spread, which is a working group that takes cares of outreach materials like postering. 

We had a few different posters, a couple about Campus Safety and a couple about campus fines. We think that fines on this campus, in the way that they are tied into discipline and punishment are classist and disproportionately affect low-income working-class students. The fact that fines are still here, along with a number of other policies here at Bennington don’t make sense.  We also made the posters in the aim of getting people to think about the role of Campus Safety. A lot of Campo calls are for things like alcohol violations and other things like that. 

What work can we do to take care of each other so that Campo doesn’t need to be as much of a presence on campus? Especially since their role comes together in ‘discipline’ and ‘wellness’ which is sort of a barrier for a lot of people when seeking services.

Jennings: We wanted them (posters) to be inquisitive; not to provide answers but to get people to ask questions. Those questions being: how does Campo serve us and how does Campo not serve us? How is Campus Safety tied into larger systems of policing that we see across the country being protested? How does our struggle relate to the struggles against Campus Safety in other colleges across the country? How can we take care of each other, so that we don’t need to call Campo on our friends and put people at risk?

Ellis: I was thinking about my own experience of being fined and just never being able to pay. When I think about fines, I think about how for me it’s like the end of the world and me being able to pay tuition or not. But for wealthy students it’s barely a slap on the wrist; it’s basically a payoff. It’s just the different stakes in fines for different students here and also the mirrors the larger systems of inequity: rich people can always pay their way out of things while those who don’t have a lot of money can’t. 

Jennings: The fines come with locks for registering for classes and also other kinds of financial holds on your account. We’ve heard testimonials of students who have had their graduation threatened by last minute fines which stopped them for registering for classes that were required for them to graduate. And other things like that which rich students never have to worry about. And we also acknowledge that the fines don’t actually address any of the harm that was done. Someone fretting about whether or not they can make the thing that happened go away.

Ellis: I see it as another way the school is monetizing us. We already pay so much. Why does there need to be an impossible five hundred-dollar fine, when a restorative justice system can be in place?

What are Student Union’s current demands?

Jennings: We have a lot of things that we want to demand but we also want to make sure that we do not overstep or go too fast with (relation to) the larger student body. Right now our core demand is to abolish disciplinary fines. We see that as a clearly unequal thing, something that doesn’t serve us and can go away without any hassle.

We also have things that we are not demanding as of now but we are thinking about and laying the groundwork for, such as ‘substance use harm reduction kits’ in the houses. We know that the overwhelming majority of calls (number stated to be 95%) are for alcohol violations. And if we had the tools to take care of each other with regards to substance use, a huge part of campus safety’s job is taken away. It becomes apparent just how little we need them to take care of ourselves.

We have a training for next Wednesday where a harm reduction group is coming in to train us on ‘response to opioid use, abuse, overdose as well as alcohol and stimulants’. 

Ellis: Last night we organized ‘know your rights’ training for people who might have forced interactions with cops and ICE. It was someone with the Vermont’s Lawyers Guild, Kira Kelly.

She gave us a lot of tools and resources on how to keep ourselves and our vulnerable friends safe when interacting with the police. 

Are you calling for the dissolution for Campo and if so, what is the alternate system you wish to see? If not, what are the changes within the current system that you desire?

Ellis: Just a disclaimer: we are two representatives of the union. We do not represent the entirety of the union or the student body. Personally, I don’t see the end goal as the complete dissolution of Campo. I see way more checks and balances on the power that they have—for example the ‘right to enter’ policy which means that they can enter our room pretty much at any time, for any reason.

There is a lack of clarity between the Campus Safety and the Bennington Police Department. Campo’s hiring practices—for example they have hired former cops and prison guards and ‘right-wing people’—and there is almost no transparency there.

How they handle discipline and wellness at the same time—there is some inherent conflict in that.

Jennings: We as students are in a position to de-escalate situations of conflict far better than Campo is. They have certain training like CPR and first aid training. That is all training that would better serve our community if it was decentralized.

Ellis: Those of us who aren’t trained are already first responders. It is your friends who try and take care of you first. So why not give us the tools to actually take care of each other and ourselves. Speaking about this from a student labor lens, a crisis team of paid student de-escalators who have paid different shifts especially on party nights could help keep us safe, way better than calling Campo would. 

Jennings: To provide some context, these are demands that are being made all around the country at schools like Middlebury, Colorado College, Wesleyan and University of California. For paid student de-escalation roles, the reduction of campus policing, provision of services like harm reduction kits. These demands are happening everywhere, and we don’t think that Bennington is free from the need for this change.

Would you like to make some closing remarks or touch on important points that we might have missed?

Ellis: I think Every just started to touch on it but Bennington does not exist out of context. Just because Campo has the word ‘safety’ behind it doesn’t mean that it is free from systems of policing and oppression. It is really important, as we are thinking about Campus Safety, we can allow ourselves a nuance of contextualization in it with larger systems of state policing.

Jennings: There is a view of abolition as a destructive process, that it is about tearing down structures that are hurting people. While that is certainly a part of it, it is also a constructive process.

I don’t think that the student body right now is prepared for the responsibility that we are fighting for us to hold. For these changes to actually work and be effective, we need to invest in ourselves and we need the school to invest in us. This isn’t like a magic solution. It takes a huge amount of time and work. But I think that across the country we are seeing that it is work that is valuable and that can be done.

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