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Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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Ciera Jeffries Protest

AU employee placed on administrative leave for actions at anti-Trump protest

Scott O’Beirne told staff he will likely lose his position after altercation with student

A library staff member has been placed on administrative leave following his involvement in an altercation during a campus protest on Nov. 9, The Eagle has learned.

Scott O’Beirne, who has worked as the Academic Multimedia Services Coordinator since 2010, emailed his staff on Nov. 11 to inform them that he would be out of the office for an “indefinite” period of time and was likely to lose his job due to his actions during the protest.

A video shot by The Eagle at the anti-Trump protest shows O’Beirne running toward sophomore Ciera Jeffries, who was holding a burning flag at the time. O’Beirne attempted to take the flag away from Jeffries, which led to an altercation between O’Beirne and several protesters, who pushed O’Beirne away from Jeffries.

“This was wrong of me to do. Not because I’m in trouble, or that I will likely lose my AU staff position,” O’Beirne wrote in the email obtained by The Eagle. “But preventing someone from being able to express their political beliefs openly is something I value. And my actions will be something I regret for a long time.”

In an interview with The Eagle, Jeffries said O’Beirne grabbed her and pulled her up the stairs of the Mary Graydon Center, the location of the protest. Jeffries said she never expected for something like this to happen at AU, where she considered free speech to be protected. 

“I understood that I angered him by [burning the flag], but I didn’t think that the anger was warranted enough to come and try to take the flag from me or even touch me at all,” Jeffries said. “You just can’t do that.” 

O’Beirne did not respond to a request for comment, but said in the email to his staff that he did not mean to assault or hurt Jeffries. 

“My intention was never to harm the young lady or assault her, but as I attempted to take the flag from her, we became entangled and others have interpreted my actions as hostile intent,” O’Beirne wrote in the email. “I apologize if my actions have effected (sic) any of you in any way negatively.”

Not O’Beirne’s first reprimand

O’Beirne, whose LinkedIn profile says he he has been in the Army National Guard since August 2014 and earned his B.A. from AU, has been reprimanded by the University in the past. Jacqueline Bennett, a junior who worked for O’Beirne for two semesters before leaving in May, said O’Beirne was required to display two disciplinary policy violations on the wall of his office. 

Bennett recalled that one of the violations was issued because O’Beirne said people of Asian descent “all look alike.” Another former employee, who wished to remain anonymous because they might work for the department in the future, confirmed the content of the violation.

“I was extremely uncomfortable when I saw those,” Bennett said. “Just seeing them up on the wall was a reminder of, ‘Oh, this is what this guy thinks. This is what my boss thinks.’”

O’Beirne’s comments made her and other employees consistently uncomfortable and created a “toxic work environment,” Bennett said, but she did not report him to administration because she did not want to threaten her financial situation and did not believe his bosses would fire him.

“I don’t know if they will remove him now,” Bennett said. “That’s why I was always hesitant to bring anything up to them because I was like, ‘Are they really going to remove him?’ They seemed pretty tolerant of everything he has said so far.”

Jeffries speaks out on University response 

Since the altercation with O’Beirne, Jeffries and her mother have met with several administrators, including President Neil Kerwin on Monday, Nov. 14. Kerwin released a memo on Nov. 11 calling the burning of the American flag “an act of profound disrespect that left many members of our community outraged, deeply offended, and disappointed.” He added that the University “in no way condones, promotes or supports” burning the U.S. flag.

Jeffries said Kerwin was “arrogant” during their meeting and did not understand the negative connotations the flag held for millions of people, including her.  

“Because he took the stance that he did, it seemed to myself and many marginalized students here that he doesn’t have their back,” Jeffries said. 

Jeffries also took issue with Public Safety’s presence at the protest. Though Jeffries was satisfied with how officers investigated O’Beirne after the altercation, she said she was disappointed with the actions of officers during the protest and feels they should have reacted faster to prevent the demonstration from becoming violent. Jeffries described two plain-clothed officers, who later apologized for what happened to her, as “just standing there” as another man and O’Beirne attempted to take flags away from protesters. 

Jeffries and her mother, who flew in from Missouri, met with Director of Public Safety Phillip Morse twice to discuss these issues and left feeling like Morse had “blown smoke up [their] butts,” she said. Morse did not answer her question about what policies and procedures are in place for when peaceful protests turn violent, Jeffries said. 

The best course of action for administrators, Jeffries said, would have been to state that they were wrong but that they would take this as a lesson and would retrain Public Safety officers for future protests. When this was mentioned in the meeting with Morse, he changed the subject multiple times, Jeffries said. Morse did not respond to a request for comment on the matter. 

“By having some officers fully dressed in their uniforms, a few of them at least, would let people know that there are officers there that will do something if things erupt,” Jeffries said. “I think that was part of the problem, and I think the fact that they failed to react to the first sign of something is what allowed the rest of the incidents to happen.”

According to the Annual Security Report released by Public Safety on Sept. 26, University police officers are required to attend a 10-week Campus Public Safety Institute program that trains them in D.C. codes, constitutional law and crisis intervention, among other areas. Per the report, AU police officers also receive training in incident command, defensive tactics and emergency response. The report does not mention campus protests or demonstrations by name.

What’s next?

Director of Public Relations Kelly Alexander did not provide details on the state of O’Beirne’s case when reached for comment on Monday. 

“This matter is being investigated to determine the appropriate course of action,” Alexander said in an email. “These matters are considered on a case by case basis.”

AU can immediately dismiss an employee if they commit a Level III offense, which includes committing or threatening to commit an act of physical violence and fighting, according to the University’s staff personnel policies. In the case that an employee commits a Level III offense, the University manual says that “a lesser penalty may be imposed if the supervisor thinks it more appropriate.”

For now, Audio Visual Services Director Bob Brownlee will be handling many of O’Beirne’s administrative duties for the Academic Multimedia Services department, according to an email sent to AMS staff by Brownlee on Nov. 11. Brownlee wrote that he hopes O’Beirne’s “leave will be of short duration and that things will be resolved positively.” 

Jeffries said she expects O’Beirne to lose his job after being told in a meeting with Human Resources staff that she “had nothing to worry about” concerning her fears of running into O’Beirne on campus. If O’Beirne does lose his position, neither him nor Jeffries will be on campus after this fall. Jeffries is studying abroad in the spring and said she plans to transfer to another university for her junior year.  

“It has really left me with a sour taste in my mouth for the school,” Jeffries said. “Since my freshman year, I had already planned on transferring, but this really drove it home for me. Even if somehow my opinions about the school changed a bit, I couldn’t stay because I don’t feel that the president has my back.” 

Update appended: University releases statement on police protocol during protest

The University released a statement to The Eagle on Nov. 18 regarding its policies for campus police presence during a student protest. Director of Public Relations Kelly Alexander said in an email on Friday that the University police coordinated its efforts with the Office of Campus Life to ensure that the protest was productive and safe.

Uniformed Public Safety officers were stationed outside of the Mary Graydon Center and across the quad, and plain clothes officers were visibly identifiable among the demonstrators, according to Alexander. Officers also made sure that a fire extinguisher and medical bag were available, Alexander said.

While guidelines for student protesters are publicly available on AU’s webpage for University policies, the protocol Alexander referred to for University police during a campus protest is not.

“University Police were present through the entirety of this event to ensure that students were able to carry out their demonstration and to assist in preventing or de-escalating any situations that threatened public safety,” Alexander said in the email. “An assessment of any event that officers are dispatched to undergoes an after action review and very serious consideration is given to making improvements where believed necessary.”

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