Three sophomore students gathered outside New Residence Hall with a collapsible drying rack and a full-length mirror around 8:25 p.m. last Tuesday. They laid the mirror face down across the rack and arranged six red Solo cups in triangular formation on each end. They filled the cups with ginger ale and tried tossing a ping pong ball into the cups.
The game, a variation on the popular drinking game beer pong, was part of a student protest expressing disapproval with the actions of Campus Police this semester.
Megan Geerdtz, sophomore psychology major, was invited to the event on facebook.com and saw it as a chance to “do something fun that actually means something.”
By 9 p.m., the scheduled start time for the rally, approximately 35 students had gathered, including four freshman fine arts majors dressed in full costume as a bumblebee, a gorilla, a skeleton and a rabbit – to add to the spectacle, they said. Another student smoked from a churchwarden, a long pipe.
Some students signed the accompanying petition if they hadn’t already.
The petition demands that “the sudden increase in excessive vigilance by the administration and Campus Police be reduced” and that the rights of students be acknowledged and respected. It also says, “We fully understand and respect the need for protection of the community against violent, destructive, and criminal behavior.”
By Friday evening, Oct. 13, students had collected 1,000 signatures for the petition.
Originally, the petition was to be submitted to administrators on Oct. 13, but Student Government Association (SGA) members asked to have the petition approved at an association meeting and then to collect more signatures before submitting it to Campus Police. The creator of the petition, sophomore international studies major Max Marshall, agreed.
“A petition provided to Campus Police would certainly be taken seriously and reviewed,” Matt Golden, director of Communications and Media Relations, said via e-mail.
That night, SGA members in attendance appealed to Marshall to have the petition changed so that it would be an appeal to Kathryn Leverton, who is in charge of Campus Police as the associate vice president of Administrative and Environmental Services, instead of to College President R. Barbara Gitenstein. Marshall agreed to make the change and SGA members signed the petition.
At the protest, Eric Berg, junior history major, distributed handouts he had printed from the American Civil Liberties Union Web site that listed what students should do when stopped by police.
Christine Cullen, SGA executive president, told Berg that SGA was looking to create its own list of what students should do when stopped by police.
Marshall said Campus Police has “completely increased (its) efforts to crack down on everything.” The efforts have “turned (the College) into a police state instead of a college liberal arts campus.”
Marshall, who said he doesn’t support underage drinking, had an unpleasant experience when police on rove knocked on the door to the room where he was watching television with some friends before quiet hours. He kept hearing stories about students feeling harassed by police and realized it was part of a “much bigger phenomenon,” he said.
Twenty unpleasant experiences with Campus Police – 14 of them shared anonymously – are posted at the end of the petition. One incident described a situation when a student was asked by Campus Police to turn out her pockets without a reason. Another detailed a time when a student’s bag was searched by Campus Police with no apparent or stated probable cause or warrant. The student said he did not consent to a search.
In other accounts, Campus Police was alleged to be unnecessarily aggressive, condescending or using profanity.
“I have very strong feelings about freedom and liberty,” Marshall said. “It’s not about drinking; it’s not about partying. It’s about students having rights they don’t know they have.”
He created a private event for his friends on Facebook. Many students were interested, so he decided to make the event public, he said.
“After I opened it up it just grew and grew,” Marshall said.
More than 1,200 students, including some from other schools, were invited to the event.
Michael Levy, SGA vice president of Administration and Finance, came to the rally. He noted that SGA does not support underage drinking.
“We do support the Fourth Amendment. We do support the Fifth Amendment,” he said.
“A lot of students, frankly, don’t know their rights on campus,” Steve Viola, junior class treasurer, said. Viola sits on the administration and finance committee, which deals with Campus Police. Executive Vice President James Gant, who attended the rally, also serves as the Campus Police liaison for SGA.
SGA members said they had been discussing student complaints about police behavior before talks of the protest started.
Administrators said they would take student concerns into account.
“Students’ rights are very important and must be respected,” Golden said. “All our officers receive extensive training in search and seizure methods, and violating proper protocol would jeopardize the collection of evidence and legal merit of any case. If any student were to feel that his or her rights were infringed upon, that should absolutely be reported so the situation can be investigated and dealt with appropriately.”
Around 9:45 p.m., some juniors who live off campus pulled up in front of New Residence Hall. One yelled, “Party,” and set up a pong table on three milk crates. They filled cups with O’Doul’s non-alcoholic beer and began playing.
“Police are disrespectful to students. Tonight I’m going to be disrespectful to them,” Purvik Patel, junior technology education major, said.
Patel wore a driving violation ticket around his neck. He had been given it the night before after stopping on Metzger Drive to pick up a friend at the New Library, he said.
Part of the petition expresses disapproval of Campus Police’s ticketing this semester. “In addition to the condescension and disrespect displayed by the authorities, we view the increased distribution of tickets, especially for automobile violations, as highly uncalled for and excessive,” it says.
The petition also says that “the relationship between students and police officers in this community should and must be one of utmost mutual respect and trust. With the recently excessive vigilance and harassment of college students by campus officers, it is becoming increasingly difficult to enjoy and maintain a positive relationship between the two groups.”
Another group set up apple juice pong on a folding table, so three different games were being played.
Campus Police officers periodically rode by in cars and on bicycles and some watched for a bit from a distance, but none approached the gathered students.
“Campus Police (was) aware that a protest was happening and did not approach any students, because there was no illegal activity taking place,” Golden said after consulting with Campus Police. Campus Police officers “would not disclose how they were informed of the protest, because they must protect the source of information provided to them in confidence,” Golden said.
Not everyone supports the campaign. Although more than 300 students accepted the Facebook invitation to the event, “a lot of people didn’t come,” Kate Krueger, sophomore deaf education and elementary education/ history major, said.
“A lot of people were even afraid of signing the petition,” Steve Morris, sophomore political science major, said.
Marshall said he has been pleased with the support. “I have (been) approached by many groups, including SGA, Res Life, faculty, student body and even Campus Police, all showing mild to complete support for the cause.”
“We collected at least 100 signatures at the rally, and ended the night with nearly one 1,000,” Marshall said via e-mail the day after the rally. “If the only thing that comes from this is raised awareness of our rights, I think we will have been successful.”
Some students at the protest said they have thought about transferring because police actions have damaged the quality of social life on campus.
“If it was my freshman year, I would transfer. Definitely,” Jim Garbe, sophomore statistics major, said. “The only reason I’m still here is because I saw what it could be like last year.”
There were other reports of students feeling harassed by Campus Police on the night of the protest.
“After the protest last night, there were complaints by numerous freshmen saying that the police were standing outside the towers, stopping all students for random sobriety tests,” Marshall said.
If true, it would have been against police policy, Golden said.
“There may have been occasions when an officer had reason to believe a student violated the law and then approached that individual, but no random sobriety tests are administered to students entering the residential facilities,” Golden said.
“Our police officers have always enforced the state’s laws concerning alcohol consumption but, unfortunately, the number of alcohol-related incidents has climbed consistently over time,” Golden added.
“Underage drinking is illegal and has become a significant national issue. It often leads to a variety of related problems and can present serious safety concerns. As a college, we offer many support services for those who have a problem with alcohol abuse, but we also have a responsibility to enforce the laws of the state. Turning a blind eye does not serve anyone’s best interests,” Golden added.
The text of the petition is available online at d2direct.com/max/TCNJ/petition.html.