Public forum provides a place to voice concerns
On Thursday, Jan. 12, Portland State hosted a public-safety forum. The event, which was open to the public, provided a venue for discussion of campus public safety between staff, faculty and students. The forum resulted in several troubling questions raised by the university community.
Sitting on the university panel was Jessica Amo, assistant director of the Women’s Resource Center; Dr. Marcy Hunt-Morse, director of Counseling and Psychological Services; Phillip Zerzan, director of Campus Public Safety Office; and Charles Lopez, executive director of the Office of Diversity and Inclusion. Michele Toppe, dean of student life, mediated the discussion.
The panel fielded questions from press, students, staff and faculty, and responded to concerns about the current level of safety at PSU.
Toppe opened the forum stating that it was an opportunity for the community to find out “how we can work together to make an optimally safe campus.”
“The most important thing we can do is have a space to have a dialogue,” she continued.
When asked how safe students should feel on campus, the panel responded by pointing out the various preventative programs offered by the university. Amo stated that the WRC not only offers counseling for those whose lives have been affected by sexual violence, but that the WRC also works to prevent sexual violence.
On Tuesday, Jan. 10, the university’s new sexual assault resource website went live. Students can now access the website through the university’s main web page. The sexual assault resource website directs students, faculty and staff to emergency resources on campus and prevention opportunities.
“There are people on the other end of the phone that want to hear from you,” said Amo.
Students are asked to be observant of their surroundings and of their fellow students. If students feel a friend or colleague may be struggling with mental health issues, they are asked to contact the university. Students who request such help will be kept anonymous.
Hunt-Morse emphasizes the importance of observation and being proactive. “It’s good to reach out…It’s about dialing in and noticing what’s going on in our spaces,” she said.
CPSO and the university highly recommend that students opt-in to the PSU alert system in order to receive news regarding safety threats and timely warnings on campus. The PSU alert system can be accessed through the CPSO website.
The panel was asked several questions regarding building access. Zerzan stated that PSU is “a very open university.” Zerzan also stated that more thought needs to be given to access control on campus.
CPSO will be “looking at access control as a university-wide system,” said Zerzan. Implications of alterations to the system “might mean that someone who has had 24-hour access for a long time might not have that,” Zerzan said.
Zerzan cited the increase in heroin arrests on campus as a factor in cracking down on access to buildings on campus. Zerzan stated that there were “66 heroin arrests last year in university buildings.” He went on to explain that in the last year, three CPSO officers were involved in violent altercations while trying to detain heroin users.
CPSO is planning to make access on campus more controlled and is planning to evaluate how access is granted, and the reasons for granting access. Options presented at the forum included adding more key codes to university buildings and restrooms and restricting access to buildings after certain hours.
Pearce Whitehead, vice president of the Associated Students of Portland State University, questioned the possible crackdown on access to students, asking the panel, “Where do you draw the line between access and freedom to use resources?”
“It’s a balance between safety and access,” Zerzan said.
William Debenedetti, a researcher at PSU, voiced concern over CPSO’s reaction to the multiple heroin incidents in the university’s science buildings. Currently, only one of the science buildings is protected with key code access.
In an interview after the meeting, Debenedetti spoke of a recent incident in one of the science buildings. “On Monday, Jan. 9, 2012, I used the restroom and found a metal bottle cap. This cap had a twist-tie around the edge, which looked like a handle of sorts; inside the cap was a dark brown/blackish spherical object. I assumed this was drug paraphernalia for heating/filtering heroin and phoned CPSO. They arrived rather swiftly and removed the object from the restroom,” Debendetti said.
“They stopped by my laboratory and asked if I had phoned for their services. I explained that this was the second incident regarding heroin use in these restrooms in the past few weeks and then asked what steps were being taken to prevent further incidences,” said Debendetti.
“I was told that PSU is in central downtown Portland and to expect such problems and to simply give them a call. I expressed my frustrations and cited the safety of PSU students, staff, faculty and property and was given a business card with officer specifics and general CPSO information.”
According to Debenedetti, CPSO told him that, “to the best of their knowledge that the material recovered was heroin.”
At the meeting, Debenedetti recounted his story to the panel. Zerzan stated that the response by CPSO to Debendetti’s case was “not acceptable.”
“CPSO has not kept pace with the rapid growth of the university,” Zerzan said.
He stated that CPSO currently acts under a reactive model as opposed to a preventative model.
“Policing a university environment has become much more complex,” said Zerzan. He then cited recent legislation that now allows universities to commission police officers to enforce law on campuses. “This bifurcated model of CPSO and campus police is the national standard.”
Facilities on the edges of campus, including the Helen Gordon Child Development Center and parking structures, have faced issues with outsiders trespassing on the property. Due to the limited resources, buildings like the parking structures are often sites for crimes of opportunity such as theft and vandalism.
CPSO states that they are working to correct issues in these areas but that they face problem with “fuzzy boundaries” and “limited authority.”
Beth Manhat, a graduate chemistry student, expressed concerns over the measures the university might take. “I appreciate the measures taken thus far by the PSU campus, but it doesn’t seem complete,” Manhat said.
“I am most concerned because these are not events which are happening in the middle of the night. They have occurred during regular working hours when classes are going on and graduate students are working to meet the requirements of their degrees,” said Manhat.
The meeting today brought up an interesting point, that yes, many crimes here at PSU are crimes of opportunity. I do not want to feel unsafe such that coming to work will put me in a place of opportunity to someone who is willing to overdose in a public restroom of a university,” said Manhat, citing an incident in December when she was prevented from using a restroom in the science building after a heroin user overdosed there.
The meeting closed with the panel asking students and staff to continue to be vigilant of their surroundings and aware of the events that occur on campus.