Campus Safety Lacks Transparency and Student Voices

Continuing his series on policing structures at Amherst College, Staff Writer Fritz Lalley ’25 discusses the Campus Safety Advisory Committee.

Campus Safety Lacks Transparency and Student Voices
Director of Campus Safety and Chief of Police John Carter is on the CASC. Photo courtesy of Amherst College.

Amherst College has a variety of policing groups responsible for student safety, whose specific roles are hard to keep track of. In an article I wrote last month, I attempted to break down all of the groups I have identified along the way. I found the entire network of safety stakeholders to be relatively ambiguous: ‘ACPD,’ ‘CSO,’ ‘CSA,’ and ‘OSA.’ One such group was the Campus Safety Advisory Committee, or ‘CSAC.’ This committee, composed of students, faculty, police, and administrators seems integral for deciding the model of policing upheld on the campus: the CSAC’s recommendation was a deciding factor in the decision to allow Amherst College police to eat in Valentine Dining Hall. The college’s decision to unmark campus police vehicles two years ago, widely unpopular amongst students, faculty, and everyone in between, was reversed based on the CSAC’s recommendation as well.

I was curious to hear from individuals involved in CSAC deliberations. I spoke with Director of Campus Safety and Chief of Police John Carter regarding his experience on the committee since its formation in 2021. Carter emphasized the importance of the committee’s outreach into all of the differing perspectives on campus safety and policing: “This is where we talk about it [policing and safety] and where we try to get feedback. We actually go out and ask people on the campus for their thoughts. And, when that information comes back, we are able to have fairly energetic conversations about what we think and what we recommend.” Carter also emphasized the fact that the committee is merely advisory and not authoritative. “Safety means different things to different people. It means something different to you than maybe it means to an international student. And so this group tries to take in all that information and give good advice,” he said.

During our conversation, Carter mentioned that the committee began meeting less this year compared to prior years. Carter said the committee had less work to do this year. “We were still figuring out what the individual roles of the ACPD, the CSOs, and the CSAs would be. We had a lot of things we were thinking about, so in the beginning, it was a much more intensive effort,” he explained.

I noticed after our conversation that the committee has not posted a yearly campus safety report since the 2021-2022 school year, or the first year of the committee’s existence. The Amherst College website states that the committee must release a detailed report on campus safety “annually, or as determined by the chair and the committee.” How do we explain the absence of a safety report for the 2022-2023 school year? To answer this question, I met with the current chair of the committee, Chief Equity and Inclusion Officer Sheree Ohen.

Ohen began working at the college and as the chair of the CSAC this year. She explained to me how her predecessor, Professor of Chemistry Sheila Jaswal, only served on the committee for four and a half months. “Four and [a] half months is not a long enough time to really get a handle on all of that responsibility, and that’s when the gap year happened,” Ohen said. “What they did instead is, in October of 2023, they sent a letter to the community.” However, this letter is not available on the Amherst College website, nor could I find it in my Amherst College email. Ohen agreed that this letter should be posted online in the name of transparency.

I asked Ohen about the value of student voices in the committee. “The work of the CSAC intersects with the student experience, and I have found our conversations to be very student-centered,” Ohen said. I asked Ohen whether she felt that the four students serving on the committee were being heard. Her response was somewhat concerning. “In my first year, I have only seen one student consistently attend. When I look at the membership from the past, it definitely seems like more students attended and prioritized this committee.” So, not only has the number of committee meetings lessened in recent years, but so too has the participation of students on the committee.

Considering the student experience, I conducted my final interview with CSAC member Mahathi Athreya ’24. Athreya finds that the committee’s deliberations are largely driven by administration members, given that “none of the agendas are set by students … administrative members of the committee wrote up [agenda items], and that kind of drove the discussions.” Regarding her experience, she continued, “they want to at least have some representation on what the students think on the issues debated. I just think that there was probably more room to have conversations that were centered around what students believed to be the primary safety concerns on campus.” In fairness, Athreya does feel as though the committee has made efforts to focus more thoroughly on safety issues most prevalent to students.

In her time serving, she notes that certain outcomes of committee discussions, such as the development of the Amherst College Safety App, as directly focused on sexual violence. “Honestly, I joined the committee, the first semester I served, with the purpose of addressing sexual violence on campus,” she said. On that note, I asked Athreya whether she found the committee to be understanding of the prevailing nature of sexual violence on campus, to which she responded that “they definitely are, the Chief of Police is on the committee, and they have the reports on instances of rape and sexual violence on campus,” she continued, “But at the same time, I don’t feel like the actual events [of sexual violence] and the pressing dangers of such events were a very central part of the conversation[s].” When asked what she believed was the solution to the problem described, she emphasized student engagement. “The committee was more in the problem-solving state of mind which doesn’t really address any underlying causes of these problems. I feel like that’s where the students really come in: experience, and what we think would help address those underlying causes.”

The CSAC’s deliberations had a tangible impact on policies around policing and safety on campus. As a recent article from the Guardian describes, the extreme scenes involving police confrontations with student protestors on campuses across the nation suggest that the CSAC’s role at Amherst is especially important right now. As conflicts continue globally, so too will the conflict between student activists and college administrations. We must understand that the CSAC holds the unique role of facilitating effective communication between the two groups.