During the PASSHE webcast on its proposed weapons policy, APSCUF president, Dr. Steve Hicks, and vice president, Dr. Ken Mash, offered brief remarks expressing concerns about the draft policy. Dr. Lisa Millhous, APSCUF’s chapter president at West Chester University, also provided perspective on how the draft policy would affect the campus learning environment.
Remarks by Dr. Steve Hicks:
“The Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education is responsible for providing a safe and secure educational environment for its 110,000 students. On behalf of the 6,000 APSCUF faculty and coaches at the 14 universities, I want to express our concern that the Board of Governors is considering this policy to allow weapons to be carried on campus in areas not deemed “sensitive.”
Last year APSCUF’s Executive Council adopted a formal statement on PASSHE’s proposed weapons policy. It states that the only acceptable policy is one that bans the carrying of weapons in all areas unless by an officer or authorized personnel. In May of 2013, the Commission of Presidents representing all 14 universities took a similar position, unanimously agreeing that a system-wide policy should be developed that prohibits weapons on campus except when approved by the University President or sworn delegate.
The nature of faculty work involves evaluating students in a setting that is highly individualized and personal. The entire nature of the faculty-student dynamic changes when a faculty member knows a student may be carrying a weapon into a classroom. The policy would create a chilling effect on the classroom environment for both faculty and students.
According to a 2008 policy paper from the American Association of State Colleges and Universities, nearly all public universities in the United States prohibit the carrying of concealed weapons on campus. College campuses are highly fluid environments that make a “flexible” weapons policy virtually impossible to enforce. At any given moment, thousands of students, staff, and visitors are moving around campus. This policy would place an enormous administrative burden on campus police to ensure every person on campus complies with the policy.
PASSHE campuses are also filled with minors that are supposed to be protected from the danger of weapons on educational properties. In addition to first-year college students that may be under 18, many high school students participate in dual enrollment programs on the campuses and at least nine PASSHE universities have daycare centers on campus. Many universities also offer summer camps and sports clinics to minors.
We also must be cognizant of the unique nature of the campus environment and the potential hazards that arise if students are permitted to carry weapons on campus. National surveys show that alcohol and binge drinking play a role in student life on college campuses, creating the possibility that already dangerous situations could escalate when weapons are involved.
While APSCUF also questions how this policy will work, how enforceable it will be, and how effective it will be, we are most concerned that after feedback from faculty, students, and university presidents, the Board of Governors is still considering a policy that will create a dangerous learning environment for our students. The best policy to uphold our commitment to a safe learning environment is to prohibit weapons on all areas of campus unless carried by police, security officers, or other authorized personnel.”
Remarks by Dr. Ken Mash:
“Thank you for the opportunity to comment today on PASSHE’s proposed BOG policy 2013:3 Prohibiting Deadly Weapons on Campus. My name is Ken Mash, and I am a political science professor at East Stroudsburg University and the Vice President of the Association of Pennsylvania State College and University Faculties.
APSCUF has had several opportunities to discuss this policy with both the committee and PASSHE officials. It seems very clear that this proposed policy is motivated by the fear that absent this policy the PASSHE institutions may be vulnerable subject to lawsuit by 2nd Amendment absolutists who claim an infringement on their right to bear arms. Ironically, by attempting to avoid lawsuit the System may have opened up the universities to lawsuit by passing a policy that is unconstitutionally vague.
This policy has the support of no constituencies of which I am aware. The students, the university presidents, and the faculty and coaches have all voiced their concerns, and there appears to be overwhelming support for a policy that completely prohibits deadly weapons on campus. That is the only policy that recognizes every inch of the university as a learning environment and which preserves our institutions’ role in hosting the marketplace of ideas.
The policy seems to recognize this concept, as in addition to identifying traditional buildings as sensitive areas where weapons are to be banned, it includes “assemblies, outdoor class meetings, field trips, camps, and other similar activities.”
The Supreme Court has said that a “law is void for vagueness if persons `of common intelligence must necessarily guess at its meaning and differ as to its application.” Under this policy, how would a citizen exercising his or her constitutional right to bear arms know what constitutes an assembly, outdoor class meeting, etc.? How do they know how far they must keep away? And what precisely is a “similar activity?”
The motivation for this language is unquestionably a desire to ensure the safety of the university community and to allow our schools to serve their missions. However, the policy under consideration today is so vague that it opens the door for the very type of lawsuits that the System is trying to avoid.
The clearest, safest, most wanted policy continues to be a weapons ban on campus. The rationales for this ban are yet to be settled by courts with jurisdiction over our universities. If there is to be error, it should be error on the side of safety and the mission of our universities.”
Remarks by Dr. Lisa Millhous:
“Thank you for this opportunity. I am Lisa Millhous and I have been a faculty member at West Chester University since 1999. I work in the Communication Studies Department teaching public speaking and business communication. I also serve as the WCU chapter president for APSCUF.
I want to paint a picture for you of what it’s like on the ground at a growing institution of roughly 18,000 people, located an hour from a major metropolitan area. Our mission is to provide a safe learning environment where our students can be successful – inside and outside the classroom. The proposed weapons policy works against our core mission in both venues, so I would like to begin with some examples of classroom safety concerns that I have.
My department offers several courses to 100-200 students and we find that a few students can be more aggressive in a class where the professor doesn’t know them personally. Not many, but we have had to remove students from larger classes because they are disruptive to other students’ learning. I don’t want these students standing outside my building with a loaded weapon after class.
Additionally, as the APSCUF chapter president, I work with a few faculty members each semester who have concerns for their own safety because a student and/or their parents have expressed hostility directly to them in private. Our threat response team is great: They look for clues the aggressor had combat training, they provide mental health support as needed, they take security precautions …but there isn’t much we can do until the student takes action. I have to tell faculty, who may be afraid to come to campus, that they must continue to teach as best they can under the circumstances. This deprives other students of the best learning environment. And I certainly don’t want the aggressor following the faculty member to their car with an openly carried weapon.
Finally, each semester I assign a group project to 100 students in several courses. The students learn teamwork as they produce a group product. Every semester, there is usually one student who isn’t happy and wants the project to be done their way. I offer support for students as they work through conflict, but it is difficult when a peer uses bullying tactics because students don’t always alert me.
My concern with the weapons policy isn’t about the one student who presents a threat to our classes and our community. This is about protecting a learning environment for the rest of the students. Teaching and learning are impaired if there are no consequences to a person who makes an open display of weapons outside my classroom building.
But universities are about more than classroom learning. Learning that occurs outside the classroom is equally important. Let me give you three examples:
First, West Chester University is a magnet for activist groups such as Repent America, who make a regular stop on our campus. We work hard to educate students on the importance of freedom of speech, and to help them understand how to appropriately engage others if you oppose their views. These demonstrations easily become heated and volatile. How does it change freedom of speech if it is OK to bring a gun to this type of demonstration?
Second, I talk to my students every day — I know that many of our students experience depression; they imagine and plan their own deaths, and sometimes they carry them out. Nationally, alcohol and suicide are the leading causes of death among college students. What is our responsibility to students and their parents? Should we increase their access to weapons?
Third, we have many programs that reach out to children in the community and also give our students hands-on opportunities to practice what they are learning. We have children involved in a Speech and Hearing Clinic and the SPARC Autism Clinic; we provide music lessons, and swimming lessons. Many faculty have active research programs that bring children on campus to participate in their scholarly activities. What do we tell their parents when our new policy hits the headlines?
Defining and protecting sensitive areas on campus does not work because it is impossible to locate them on a college campus. The learning environment is fluid and moving and is present throughout our campus.
The reality is that no matter what policy we put in place, there will always be the possibility of gun violence. A policy might reduce the impact or the likelihood of a shooter, but we cannot stop a determined perpetrator. What a policy does best is build trust – it impacts our perception of safety and the sense of community. A community that feels safe fosters learning and growth and success. That community is what can overcome any attack.
I believe that the proposed policy erodes our confidence in the safety of our learning environment. Students and faculty who feel unsafe will leave our Universities to find places where they feel safer in teaching and learning. The proposed policy harms our ability to recruit and retain top faculty and students and cuts at our core mission of teaching and learning. Don’t do this to our institutions. A college campus is by definition a sensitive area where weapons need to be controlled and prohibited.”
 See Turner, J. C. (2011). Leading causes of mortality among college students. Paper presented at the American Public Health Association. See http://news.virginia.edu/content/more-us-college-students-die-suicide-alcohol-related-causes-uva-researchers-find