The following message was sent to the Barnard community on August 15, 2019:
Dear Barnard Community,
I am writing with an update on the external investigation into the confrontation that took place on April 11, 2019, between Barnard Public Safety officers and a black Columbia University student. This altercation was deeply concerning to us. To better understand how it could have occurred, the College hired an independent investigative firm to look into the specific incident, how it started and then escalated. I wanted to share the findings as soon as I received them and to also make clear that this investigation represents just one aspect of our broader efforts to improve community safety and to ensure that all who visit, study, live, and work on our campus feel welcome and safe. As I know it is summer, you can expect another update shortly after the start of fall classes.
I have heard from many in our community who expressed an urgent need for the College to take the necessary steps to address any racial and other forms of bias and inequitable enforcement of campus policies. I am committed to being part of that change and to working with all of you to create a campus culture that respects and appreciates diversity and ensures that everyone is treated equitably. As an institution focused on academic excellence, we cannot achieve our scholarly goals without a diverse and inclusive community. Campus security is an important part of this work, but it doesn’t stop there, extending to all aspects of campus life both inside and outside the classroom.
The external investigation was initiated on April 23, 2019, and has now concluded. (Here you can find the full investigation report, details about the process, and a list of Campus Safety FAQs.) The investigators reported on community perceptions of racial bias. They also cited flawed policies and training that may lead to biased enforcement. As detailed in the investigation report, Barnard Public Safety includes officers who are dedicated to their mission and who succeed in keeping our campus safe from crime. However, the investigators found that Public Safety’s response in this incident was not consistent with best practices and served to intensify the confrontation, rather than de-escalate it. The report also makes clear that a lack of updated, written policies and procedures and clear guidelines for Public Safety officers contributed to the severity of the confrontation. Without the very best in training, each officer responds to events differently and — as noted in the report — creates a “perception, if not a reality, of disparate treatment of individuals with whom [Public Safety] interacts on campus.” These are systemic failures that affect everyone involved: the officers and the community members they interact with.
The investigators’ findings demand serious attention, and we are acting promptly to make needed changes in the operations of Barnard Public Safety. As a first step, we are changing leadership of Barnard Public Safety. While we conduct a national search for a new Executive Director of Public Safety and Emergency Management, I am grateful to Amy Zavadil, who will serve in this role on an interim basis. Ms. Zavadil holds a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision and most recently served as University of Dayton’s Equity Compliance Officer. She knows the Barnard community, having served as Associate Dean for Equity from 2011 to 2017. As Interim Executive Director, Ms. Zavadil will help us make necessary improvements to the Public Safety Department, address important issues related to culture and inclusion, and implement the recommendations of the report. One recommendation, training in de-escalation tactics for all current and incoming Public Safety personnel, began this summer.
Second, in an effort to effectively communicate our safety policies, our 11 p.m. entry policy now appears on signage across campus at all entrance gates and on the Public Safety section of the website and will continue to be included in the Annual Security and Fire Safety Report, which can be found online and is shared with all students, faculty, and staff at the beginning of each academic year. Many in the Barnard community report that this policy has been enforced inconsistently in the past, and we commit to addressing that immediately. These modifications are only the beginning stages of Barnard’s efforts to ensure the consistent application of our policies and procedures and equitable treatment for all members of our community and guests to our campus.
Third, as I wrote to you about previously, we created the Barnard Community Safety Group last spring to increase transparency and community engagement with safety on campus. Now chaired by Ariana González Stokas, Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and Molree Williams-Lendor, Executive Director of Equity, this Group will work closely with Ms. Zavadil to review current policies (making sure they are transparent and equitably enforced) and help in Barnard’s assessment of campus openness and security more broadly. I am also asking this Group to assess the climate regarding perceptions and experiences of biased treatment and to recommend additional actions we can take to uphold our policy of nondiscrimination. You can find more information on the Group here and can expect an update on their planned work shortly after the start of fall classes.
What we witnessed in videos of the April 11 confrontation was deeply troubling and antithetical to Barnard’s mission. Racial and other forms of bias — though often systemic and institutionalized — are unacceptable in our community. I am grateful to all in the Barnard community who have shared their personal concerns, experiences, and suggestions to help us continue to build a campus community that values each individual and treats every person equitably. The honest conversations and exchange of ideas have not always been easy, but they are vital to strengthening our ability to create a culture that is genuinely respectful and embraces and learns from our differences. I look forward to doing this important work together.
Sian Leah Beilock