KINGSTON–The Rhode Island Board of Education voted eight to one Thursday to approve the motion to allow the University of Rhode Island, Rhode Island College and Community College of Rhode Island to make individual institutional decisions to arm the campus police. Board member William Maaia voted against the motion.
“For the record, my vote does not have anything to do with the competence of the campus police,” said Maaia. “Competency is not the issue. As far as the three college president’s capability to make the decision, I have no reservation that they are not capable. My decision to vote is driven by my own philosophical opposition to arm the police.”
Many Rhode Island residents and faculty members expressed opposition toward the motion during the open forum. Associate professor of sociology at URI, Barbara J. Costello, stated that she does not believe that weapons are necessary on campus.
“Crime on the URI campus is extremely low,” she said. “In fact the Bay Campus reported zero crimes for three years, 2009 through 2011. It is also very low on the main campus so I think the campus police are doing an excellent job as it is. And the numbers bear that out. The move to arm the police is based on extreme fear to an extremely rare event.”
Costello continued, “It’s not inevitable that something like this will happen on every campus. The arguments for arming police are based completely on hypothetical scenarios and anecdotal evidence. The problem with anecdotal evidence is that there is no way of determining whose anecdotes are more convincing.”
Faculty member Peter Nightingale also spoke against the motion during the open forum.
“I am a member of the program committee of local American friends service committee, a Quaker based organization that address the roots of war and violence,” he said. “Fear on the part of armed police leads to the shooting of unarmed people, often people of color. The tragic incident at Hofstra University just days ago confirms this pattern. We know that police equipped with deadly force does not protect university campuses,” said Nightingale. “The UK has a mostly unarmed police force and the firearm fatality rate is 40 times lower than the US. The experiment is over, the results are in. More guns spell more violence, more victims and more fatalities. Decisions that impact teaching should be taken by faculty. This empowers terrorists, this invites terrorism. URI CEOs say, ‘Think big, we do,’ truthfully they would say drink homeland security Kool Aid, we do.”
URI Police Officer Mark Chearino was also present during the open forum and urged the board to consider his safety while deciding on the motion.
“My passion is to protect the students here at the University of Rhode Island, which I have for the past 15 years,” he said. “I, along with Major Baker, and the rest of my department, put together programs that draw students, student body and ourselves closer, we interact with the cultural students who are around campus, as well as we do with any students around campus and that’s been proven throughout my 15 years.”
Chearino continued,“I do like to go home at night and when it’s 2 a.m. and you’re all settled in your beds, I’m out pulling over cars who are creating traffic violations. When I do so, there is not a flag that comes out of the window that says ‘I am a URI student.’ It could be the person who just ripped off the Cumberland Farms, held them up, whatever and are on their way exiting through our campus from that stop sign, I am the first responder to engage with that person. Their objective is to flight or fight. Me being a police officer without a fire arm is your liability when I get shot.”
URI President David M. Dooley assured the public that the university is looking carefully at all of the feedback from students, faculty and staff.
“At the University of Rhode Island we have begun the process of consultation, evaluation and ultimately decision making around the question of arming our force,” Dooley said. “It is not a decided matter at this point; I would say that it is a matter that we are attending to with some degree of diligence. There is a strong divided opinion on the campus that was reflected during the open forum that we had. That input has come and will continue to come from students, staff and faculty.”
Dooley continued, “We will consider all of the information that other institutions have used in order to reach their own decisions. We do appreciate the initiative of the board and its chair bringing forward an authorization to continue that process and we will continue to work around those issues and think very carefully about the consequences of that decision as we go forward with the process.”
The open forum also included concerned parents who were against the contract renewal of Commissioner Deborah Gist.
“My son is in the third grade, according to his teachers he is a good student, a little on the average side, but fine,” said Cranston resident Renae Shaves. “He has always liked school, so when he began to cry and tell me he didn’t want to go two weeks into the school year, I asked him why. He told me his class had been practicing for the NECAP tests that were coming up later that fall. My child felt like failure before he even put that number two pencil to the paper. That good score cost us so much.”
Shaves continued,“ I want my child and his classmates to love going to school again. I want their teachers to love teaching again. As long as Deborah Gist is allowed to hang on to her contract, it will never happen.”
The board held an executive session regarding the report from the personnel committee and the contract renewal evaluation of Gist. A decision regarding Gist’s contract hasn’t yet been announced.