While speakers gave their opening remarks at a Friday conference on student safety, students and community members stood at the entrance of the William and Ida Friday Center, signs in hand, protesting the summit’s inclusion of Chancellor Carol Folt and Chapel Hill Chief of Police Chris Blue.
The Summit on Student Safety and Wellbeing: A Call to Action was organized by deans from the Schools of Education, Medicine, Public Health and Social Work. By 2:30 p.m., a half hour after the summit officially started, a small group of protesters had gathered at the entrance.
“I don’t believe (Folt and Blue are) experts on student safety,” said Calvin Deutschbein, a fourth-year computer science Ph.D. student. “I believe their actions have been antithetical to student safety, especially on campus, but in the broader communitym as well.”
Folt did not attend the summit, but Blue led a session on school resource officers on the second day of the conference.
“(Folt) wasn’t able to attend and the provost came in her stead, but it was an indication from the chancellor and the provost of how important this topic is,” Mike Hobbs, spokesperson for the School of Education, said. “My understanding is that Chief Blue was invited also as a demonstration of how important these questions and issues are for law enforcement.”
The summit focused on different approaches to solving K-12 school safety issues.
“We recognize at the School of Education that a lot of the issues that students and educators face in schools cut across a lot of different dimensions and disciplines,” Hobbs said. “I think a lot of the problems that we’ve seen in schools on safety issues recently demonstrate that: mental health issues, drug issues, bullying, gender issues, there’s a lot going on in our schools that require attention from different directions.”
Lucia Mock, a third-year doctoral student in the School of Education, hoped the conference would focus discussion on mass shootings, issues of white supremacy and the protection of students at protests.
“As a white woman, I’m as safe as I can be,” Mock said. “I certainly don’t feel safe as a student when I’m protesting the Confederate monuments. I don’t feel safe as a student at the School of Education when I express my concerns. They tried to have us arrested last year for protesting, so there’s certainly a misunderstanding of what safety and wellbeing is. Or maybe not. They mean safety and wellbeing for certain students, not for others.”
Mock helped organized a small discussion during a break in the summit. The break out session hoped to address, among other things, the safety and wellbeing of LGBTQ+, disabled and non-citizen students, as well as students of color and religious minorities.
“We weren’t asked for any of our input in terms of what sessions should be had or what topics should be covered,” Mock said. “As School of Education students, there is a group of us that are feeling like there are some very important topics that are not being covered by this summit. I think that if (the power and systemic issues) aren’t addressed, we can have as many interventions on bullying as we want, but really nothing is going to change.”
Hobbs said while he was aware that the protest would be occurring during the summit, he hoped to facilitate discussion among students and community members.
“We recognize that we have very passionate students at Carolina, including in our own school,” Hobbs said. “I know that we have students who don’t feel that their voices are being heard enough, so we try, but some of the protests can be disruptive to an event like this. But we do seek ways to engage our students.”
The protesters opposed, in particular, the approach to student safety taken by Chapel Hill police at recent protests and events regarding Silent Sam.
Lindsay Ayling, a fifth-year graduate student in the history department, said she found it “hypocritical” for the University to present Folt and Blue as summit panelists knowledgeable on student safety and wellbeing.
“All year, they have been allowing police to brutalize students on campus,” Ayling said. “Pepper spray does not promote student wellness, slamming students on the brick, dogpiling on top of them, putting students in chokeholds until they feel that they’re about to die — none of this promotes student wellness. It’s actually very traumatizing for students’ mental health.”
At time of publication, Blue had not responded for comment.
Ayling said she hopes the University will take a different approach to ensuring student safety.
“I think the administration should disarm the police; there’s no reason police should be carrying guns on campus, especially very trigger-happy police,” Ayling said. “I also believe that the administration should promise to not allow police to carry pepper spray, and never to use pepper spray on campus — it’s a chemical weapon and it’s illegal in war.”
Hobbs said he acknowledges that the issues discussed at the summit are “bigger than just what a School of Education can tackle.”
“We live in contentious times and we need to continue to find ways to listen to each other,” Hobbs said. “I hope that we can do more of that sort of work in the future.”
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