Months Before Tessa Majors Stabbing, School Safety Was Upended By Diversity Officers Over ‘Racial’ Incident; Officials Warned About Improper Park Security

Inadequate safety measures could be partly to blame for the death of 18-year-old Barnard College student Tessa Majors, who was accosted and stabbed to death on December 11, 2019, while she was walking through New York City’s Morningside Park.

According to a report from The Cut, the teen fought her attackers and, after being brutally stabbed, made her way up and out of the park where she was eventually found unconscious by a campus security guard. Katherine Franke, a professor of law at Columbia Law School, said Majors died “just feet away” from University of Columbia President Lee Bollinger’s “doorstep,” a Columbia Spectator op-ed published December 16 notes.

Four months before Majors was murdered, the college upended their public safety system, hiring “diversity” and “equity” personnel to quell student unrest over an allegedly racially-charged incident with a minority student and campus police in April. Additional reports have emphasized reported calls to increase security around the park and inform students of its dangers, both areas where the University of Columbia and its affiliate Barnard College took questionable action, or inaction.

Two teens, one 13 years old and the other 14, have been arrested in connection with the brutal crime.

On August 15, Barnard College President Sian Leah Beilock sent communication to the Barnard community announcing new changes to the school safety system. For example, University of Dayton’s former Equity and Compliance Officer Amy Zavadil was named Barnard College’s new interim Executive Director of Public Safety and Emergency Management. According to Zavadil’s Linkedin account, she still serves in that capacity.

“Ms. Zavadil holds a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision and most recently served as University of Dayton’s Equity Compliance Officer,” Beilock boasted of the new school safety leadership. “She knows the Barnard community, having served as Associate Dean for Equity from 2011 to 2017.”

“Zavadil will help us make necessary improvements to the Public Safety Department, address important issues related to culture and inclusion, and implement the recommendations of the report,” the school president promised.

Additionally, Beilock said that the Barnard Community Safety Group created last spring is now “chaired by Ariana Gonzalez Stokas, Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and Molree Williams-Lendor, Executive Director of Equity,” noting that the group would look into “nondiscrimination” and diversity issues on campus.

The group “will work closely with Ms. Zavadil to review current policies (making sure they are transparent and equitably enforced) and help in Barnard’s assessment of campus openness and security more broadly,” the president outlined.

“I am also asking this Group to assess the climate regarding perceptions and experiences of biased treatment and to recommend additional actions we can take to uphold our policy of nondiscrimination,” added Beilock.

The incident that sparked the Barnard College safety changes in mid-August involved Columbia University senior Alexander McNab, a 23-year-old African-American male.

According to a Washington Post report in April, McNab encountered public safety officers “on his quest to find free food” on campus. While seemingly attempting to confirm that McNab was a student, a disagreement about his student ID triggered officers to “pin” McNab to a countertop.

“The incident, filmed by two witnesses, inspired a weekend of unrest on the New York City campuses,” the Post outlined, “where administrators have released statements and held listening sessions and students have called attention to what some consider a chronic problem within the public safety department.”

“Barnard has issued multiple statements and hired an independent investigator,” the outlet added at the time. “The officers involved, who do not carry guns, have been placed on paid administrative leave.”

Professor Franke, writing in her December op-ed, claimed “Columbia did very little to combat” the uptick in crime in Morningside Park.

“I used to walk through that park every day to and from work. About a year and a half ago, I started taking another route to work after noticing more drug-related activity and groups of young kids following me,” she outlined. “Earlier this year, there were reports of increased muggings and robberies in the park, often alleged to have been committed by 12- and 15-year-old kids.”

“Despite the increase in violence in Morningside Park, Columbia did very little to combat it,” wrote Franker. “The University did not notify the Columbia community of the incidents so that new students like Tessa would be on alert. Community groups addressing these safety concerns told me they weren’t contacted by the University.”

“Columbia just kept Public Safety officers in a booth at the top of the park,” she noted, “and they faced west toward the campus, not east toward the park.”

According to a report from Gothamist published on February 12, “the western cliffside, which hugs the border of Columbia’s campus, is notoriously secluded.”

The president of Friends of Morningside Park, Brad Taylor, “said he had over the years repeatedly talked about the need for someone, be it a police or parks officer or one of Columbia’s security guards, to regularly patrol the park’s upper path, where the stabbing occurred,” the report said. “Visibility worsens in the spring and summer because of trees and shrubs. Taylor had asked if it was possible to cut them down but said he got nowhere. Poor or broken lighting has also been a perennial problem.”

Read Beilock’s full letter below:

Dear Barnard Community,

I am writing with an update on the external investigation into the confrontation that took place on April 11, 2019, between Barnard Public Safety officers and a black Columbia University student. This altercation was deeply concerning to us. To better understand how it could have occurred, the College hired an independent investigative firm to look into the specific incident, how it started and then escalated. I wanted to share the findings as soon as I received them and to also make clear that this investigation represents just one aspect of our broader efforts to improve community safety and to ensure that all who visit, study, live, and work on our campus feel welcome and safe. As I know it is summer, you can expect another update shortly after the start of fall classes.

I have heard from many in our community who expressed an urgent need for the College to take the necessary steps to address any racial and other forms of bias and inequitable enforcement of campus policies. I am committed to being part of that change and to working with all of you to create a campus culture that respects and appreciates diversity and ensures that everyone is treated equitably. As an institution focused on academic excellence, we cannot achieve our scholarly goals without a diverse and inclusive community. Campus security is an important part of this work, but it doesn’t stop there, extending to all aspects of campus life both inside and outside the classroom.

The external investigation was initiated on April 23, 2019, and has now concluded. (Here you can find the full investigation report, details about the process, and a list of Campus Safety FAQs.) The investigators reported on community perceptions of racial bias. They also cited flawed policies and training that may lead to biased enforcement. As detailed in the investigation report, Barnard Public Safety includes officers who are dedicated to their mission and who succeed in keeping our campus safe from crime. However, the investigators found that Public Safety’s response in this incident was not consistent with best practices and served to intensify the confrontation, rather than de-escalate it. The report also makes clear that a lack of updated, written policies and procedures and clear guidelines for Public Safety officers contributed to the severity of the confrontation. Without the very best in training, each officer responds to events differently and — as noted in the report — creates a “perception, if not a reality, of disparate treatment of individuals with whom [Public Safety] interacts on campus.” These are systemic failures that affect everyone involved: the officers and the community members they interact with.

The investigators’ findings demand serious attention, and we are acting promptly to make needed changes in the operations of Barnard Public Safety. As a first step, we are changing leadership of Barnard Public Safety. While we conduct a national search for a new Executive Director of Public Safety and Emergency Management, I am grateful to Amy Zavadil, who will serve in this role on an interim basis. Ms. Zavadil holds a Ph.D. in Counselor Education and Supervision and most recently served as University of Dayton’s Equity Compliance Officer. She knows the Barnard community, having served as Associate Dean for Equity from 2011 to 2017. As Interim Executive Director, Ms. Zavadil will help us make necessary improvements to the Public Safety Department, address important issues related to culture and inclusion, and implement the recommendations of the report. One recommendation, training in de-escalation tactics for all current and incoming Public Safety personnel, began this summer.

Second, in an effort to effectively communicate our safety policies, our 11 p.m. entry policy now appears on signage across campus at all entrance gates and on the Public Safety section of the website and will continue to be included in the Annual Security and Fire Safety Report, which can be found online and is shared with all students, faculty, and staff at the beginning of each academic year. Many in the Barnard community report that this policy has been enforced inconsistently in the past, and we commit to addressing that immediately. These modifications are only the beginning stages of Barnard’s efforts to ensure the consistent application of our policies and procedures and equitable treatment for all members of our community and guests to our campus.

Third, as I wrote to you about previously, we created the Barnard Community Safety Group last spring to increase transparency and community engagement with safety on campus. Now chaired by Ariana Gonzalez Stokas, Vice President for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, and Molree Williams-Lendor, Executive Director of Equity, this Group will work closely with Ms. Zavadil to review current policies (making sure they are transparent and equitably enforced) and help in Barnard’s assessment of campus openness and security more broadly. I am also asking this Group to assess the climate regarding perceptions and experiences of biased treatment and to recommend additional actions we can take to uphold our policy of nondiscrimination. You can find more information on the Group here and can expect an update on their planned work shortly after the start of fall classes.

What we witnessed in videos of the April 11 confrontation was deeply troubling and antithetical to Barnard’s mission. Racial and other forms of bias — though often systematic and institutionalized — are unacceptable in our community. I am grateful to all in the Barnard community who have shared their personal concerns, experiences, and suggestions to help us continue to build a campus community that values each individual and treats every person equitably. The honest conversations and exchange of ideas have not always been easy, but they are vital to strengthening our ability to create a culture that is genuinely respectful and embraces and learns from our differences. I look forward to doing this important work together.

Sincerely,

Sian Leah Beilock
President

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