As horrible as it is to watch a campus police officers taser a student during an event at the University of Florida--a Q&A with Senator John Kerry, no less--the incident raises two very painful, but vital questions for college campuses across America: (1) What is the best way to speak out on political issues in a post-VA Tech massacre world? (2) What is the best way for campus police to react to students speaking out on political issues?
Neither of these questions are partisan, but they do raise the specter of a potential crisis looming just over the horizon: an incident that could arise where a student expressing anger on a political issue is perceived as a danger to the community and brought down by campus police with overwhelming force or worse: with deadly force. This time, it happened with a taser gun. But what about next time?
Campus police have a difficult task--a thankless task--but tasers are clearly not the answer. How can campus police be prepared to distinguish between an angry protester and an angry threat to a room? What is the best way to quiet a protest on campus? How should police respond to civil disobedience on campus without causing physical harm or worse to students?
Unfortunately, these important topics have yet to be discussed in any real way since the tragedy at Virginia Tech this past April. The horrific event of that morning have undoubtedly left campus police in a heightened state of alert--not to mention the students. In the shadow of that day, it is likely much more difficult on a college campus to make the difficult distinction between threatening actions and angry, but safe expression--and yet, the ability to quickly make this distinction is crucial to maintaining a healthy university community.
Now is the time for America's university communities to raise this topic and to have this conversation before something truly tragic happens.
As a step towards averting any such potential tragedy, I hereby assign the following homework to college police and students across America: start talking to teach other.
This particular homework assignment will be graded "Pass-Fail," and the future of America's university communities depends on it.
What form should the assignment take?
For starters, every university and college across America should consider initiating regular coffee and donut sessions with campus police and students. The goal would be to give students and campus police a chance to get to know each other a bit more, with an eye towards greater understanding and respect. Neither need for campus order nor freedom of expression need to compromised in any way by these sessions. The only thing that stands to be lost is the lack of understanding that leads to fear and escalations of violence in campus incidents involving police and students.
Police on campus, for their part, need to get to know how students speak and what their passions are so they can have a better understanding of which students are and are not dangers to the community. At the same time, students need to to get to know campus police officers to learn about their interests, their jobs and their role in protecting the very communities that students seek for learning and expression.
Political opinions are keyed up on both sides of the political spectrum in America--and college campuses are full of students seeking ways to express their views, as well as police officers looking to do their best to maintain open communities in which everyone can learn and thrive.
More talk,less taser is definitely the best way forward.
(cross posted from Frameshop)