Opinion: AU’s response to what happened in Kerwin Hall will not keep us safe
Community members feel unsafe without universal screening and open communication
Editor's Note: This story contains references to gun violence.
I moved my celebratory graduation picnic from the quad to the amphitheater because it’s easier to run from there. American University students, faculty and staff have similar fears as evidenced by canceled classes and now-virtual exams.
At 11 a.m. on Thursday, the American University community began to exchange nerve-wracking texts, emails and social media posts about suspicious behavior in Kerwin Hall. Twenty one hours later, we received an email directly from AU, saying it was opening an investigation but would make no changes to campus activities.
Students began begging their professors to move finals online, even starting a petition to officially do so. The AU Staff Union sent an email to administrators, asking about increased safety measures and demanding remote work.
“The glib dismissal of our initial concerns raises serious questions about the University’s priorities,” Matthew Stifter, the assistant director of AU Abroad and an AU Staff Union representative, said. “It is easy for administrators to dismiss these concerns when they are tucked away in offices with locking doors.”
AU’s only response so far has been directing us to psychological counseling and increasing the number of AUPD patrols. This is insufficient and potentially predatory. With increased patrols, activity is deemed suspicious at the discretion of AUPD and students. Some reports of the suspicious behavior described a young, Black man. When AUPD is given this description, it will inevitably lead to the overscreening of Black students who did nothing wrong and the overlooking of real potential threats who don’t fit the description.
Provost Peter Starr condemned racial profiling in an email on Sunday. Without action, though, it will continue. To thoroughly address safety threats without disproportionately profiling Black students, we can either move events online or implement concrete, universal screening measures.
The Department of Homeland Security recommends bag checks at large events. Two commencement ceremonies will occur on the last day of finals week. Three will occur that weekend. These large-scale, unsecured events should be days of celebration, not anxiety. Implementing bag checks would be an easy way to ensure universal screening and prevent racial profiling, guaranteeing the security of everyone at the door instead of having officers roam trying to find a problem.
“Currently, we do not plan to have enhanced security measures at commencement,” wrote assistant director of Special Events Allison Kingery in an email to me on April 29. The University has since said, in an email to the AU community, that they implement comprehensive safety plans at commencement every year, and will do the same this year.
AU’s Staff Union raised concerns with communication in an email to administrators.
“[Friday’s email] dismissed the threat without providing any reason for that dismissal while also suggesting that everyone proceed at high levels of caution around strangers on campus,” wrote the Union.
There are about to be 12,000 strangers on campus for graduation ceremonies. Do we have any concrete way to screen them or ensure their safety — like universal bag checks and entrance monitoring — or are we relying on the assumption that no one will bring a firearm? The correspondence from the Kingery and the University would only make sense if there already was standard universal screening procedures at commencement ceremonies.
“They check tickets, but that’s pretty much it. They didn’t have bag checks for guests or graduates,” said Maria Russinovich, who graduated from the School of Communication in 2022. “Even if they did, there were many different entrances that were not monitored, it seemed.”
I cannot in good conscience invite my loved ones to an event or campus with security that relies on the honor system and the police’s judgment on who looks suspicious. If that’s all the preventative security we have, all it takes is for someone to enter with a weapon is good acting.
“When it comes to America’s deeply entrenched culture of gun violence, the slightest suspicion should be met with an overabundance of caution,” said Stifter.
Some individuals raised concern that the suspicion of the individual’s actions being threatening is based in racism. This would not be new. Oftentimes Black individuals’ completely mundane actions are pathologized in order to villainize them. This will only continue with AUPD’s profiling.
“There needs to be some serious work on our end about assessing threat and bias,” commented Stevie Early, a junior in the School of Public Affairs, on the Staff Union’s Instagram.
It is unclear whether concerns about the individual's actions are founded or not. In the era of school shootings, it is unfortunately not uncommon for students to be fearful of someone asking when and where an event is taking place. One in 315 Americans die from gun violence, so being shot to death is statistically the fate of 44 AU students, based on AU’s enrollment population. In a country that has had 184 mass shootings since the beginning of 2023, directing community members to psychological counseling on account of their fears is nothing short of gaslighting. It seems AU’s plan is only reactionary, not preventative.
Administrators may be worried that increasing security means admitting to a legitimate threat, causing a panic and inviting bad press. However, every student in America is already panicking, and the press would be infinitely worse if a violent incident did happen after their insufficient response. If administrators actually care about our emotional and physical wellbeing, they will either listen to the students’ and staff’s pleas to move operations online or implement concrete, universal security measures in person.
Correction: A previous version of this article did not include updated communication from the University, which outlined its approach to safety at the commencement. In a May 5 email to the AU community, the University said that following finals it will transition into security protocols for commencement. This article has been updated to reflect that.
Greta Mauch is a senior in the School of Communication and a columnist for The Eagle.
This article was edited by Alexis Bernstein and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis and Natasha LaChac.