The Associated Students of Mills College (ASMC) held an open forum to introduce the new director of Public Safety, Yolanda Harris, on Oct. 28. The event was co-mediated by ASMC President Breanna Gingras and ASMC Executive Judicial Affairs Jessica Greely. Students and faculty filled the GSB classroom to welcome Harris and share their questions and concerns.
Many students still had questions about the presence of public safety officers policing students at the Tea Shop during peak lunch hours. There were also questions about the possibility of sliding scale parking passes, the protocol for checking IDs at the security gate booth, campus rounds and publishing a newsletter to create better communication between the department and the Mills community.
Harris has been in the director role at Mills college for six months and brings with her a vast background in security. She was in law enforcement for 22 years and before coming to Mills, she was the sergeant at California State East Bay. Harris worked for the Oakland Police Department for six years.
“I was vetted extensively to make sure I was going to be a good fit here and I believe that I am because I have had an extensive background in higher ed and I’ve dealt with student populations, staff and faculty extensively,” Harris said.
Attendees were encouraged to share their questions through notecards provided by ASMC for Greely to share with Harris or to ask openly during the event.
The first question posed to Harris was about the public safety officers’ patrol during the lunch hour at the Tea Shop. It was requested by Bon Appétit, the food service contracted by Mills.
“Public Safety along with several other entities on campus came together to meet, including Bon Appétit. Bon Appétit had a complaint of people stealing food items from the Tea Shop. They came together with Public Safety, the director over Bon Appétit, a representative from Res [Residential] Life … to come up with solutions,” Harris said. “The solution Bon Appétit put forth was public safety [officers] standing in the Tea Shop or patrolling the Tea Shop around peak hours.”
Throughout the forum, students expressed concerns about the criminalization of their peers and how those responsible were going to be held accountable for the incident.
“I think the students need to hold Bon Appétit accountable. They violate student’s rights; Public Safety was brought in basically to violate your rights,” Harris said.
Members of Active Students Against Prisons and Policing (ASAPP) communicated that they felt Bon Appétit and Public Safety should be held accountable. On Sept. 30, the organization released a statement addressed to the Department of Public Safety, Bon Appétit and administration concerning the incident and prices at the Tea Shop. They received a response from Vice President of Strategic Affairs Renee Jadushlever and were disappointed they did not hear from Public Safety.
“I drafted a response and it had to be vetted through Renee to go out,” Harris said. “I actually had requested to meet with the author of the statement.”
Harris felt that the issue of the incident fell on her and denied that the idea was hers. She explained that there is a hierarchy at Mills when releasing information and her goal was not to police students but to better the relationship between the Department of Public Safety (DPS) and the Mills community.
“I am here to build a rapport with the community and Public Safety and I believe in the short time [Public Safety] has transformed from what I was told before,” Harris said.
She had heard a complaint about Public Safety not being visible enough on-campus and not responding to calls. This situation has changed since her arrival.
Harris has taken several measures to better the Department of Public Safety’s system and relationship to students. She made the decision to remove the public safety officers from the Tea Shop when she became aware of the negative response from students.
She further explained that there had been no statement from the Department of Public Safety because she felt it was the responsibility of Residential Life. According to Harris, she had been told “not to notify students about certain things” and that it was their “platform.” She said that anything she writes for the community has to be vetted and edited by several people in administration before being released.
“Even now, I have another issue that I am trying to run through another student organization and I can’t even get them to reply to me,” Harris said.
She was also open to an idea Gringras proposed about creating a flow of information to students from DPS. Students voiced that they would appreciate a stable way of communicating and getting updates about the department as they agreed about the lack of a relationship. As of recently, there has been a noticeable change in staff.
“Some senior people left voluntarily, some not. They were not on board with the changes. They did not want to, I guess, change the style of how they operated before… There are a lot of new people here but I think they’re actually very good people. They come out, they wave, they speak to students. They participated in events we had on-campus,” Harris said.
Harris’ past experiences with college campuses were closer to Public Safety. She expressed they were happy to participate because they felt a part of the campus and not “outsiders looking in”; she envisions this reality for Mills.
She noted that when first coming to Mills, the public safety officers felt like outsiders and this has since changed. Harris wants public safety to be a part of the community and to interact with students—not to policing, but helping to better their experience.
Many students on-campus commute but cannot afford the price of a parking pass. Brenda Miles, a junior at Mills, asked about the opportunity for sliding scale parking passes. A sliding scale would base the cost of the parking pass on the person’s individual income.
Harris shared that the price is a common complaint amongst students and that she would work to find a solution. Students can do community service to work off parking tickets.
Throughout the evening, Harris shared her personal concerns and goals for the Department of Public Safety. Currently, she feels that the number of public safety officers is not enough for the student body, as there are times where there are only two public safety officers on campus.
There are also times where Mills has to contract to an outside security company, which Harris finds unstable because of the different officers that would be brought through campus. She would like to make sure that public safety officers are Mills employees as well as having the best interests for the campus in mind. This would include following policies.
Ari Yovel, a senior at Mills, followed-up with a question to Harris’ statement about Public Safety checking IDs after 10 p.m. In their 4 years, they shared that they had never been asked to see their ID as they had driven through Mills during those late hours on several occasions. They questioned the “basis” of the decision to check a person’s ID.
“They’re supposed to check your ID,” Harris responded. “That’s actually a protocol and if they’re not, they’re violating the protocol.”
Public safety officers usually allow students to pass who they’ve learned to recognize after working at Mills for some time, but the policy still stands. If a person wanted to report a violation of this policy, they would report it to Harris at her office in CPM 113.
Harris is also open to starting a “See it, Hear it, Report it” campaign on-campus to encourage students to report crimes. The current statistics at Mills College are “very minimal,” according to Harris, but students feel there are crimes such a theft happening that just aren’t being reported.
“I went in thinking about how this is really reminiscent of the noose situation, in which ASMC also stepped up to bring people in a way accountable to the students by having them present,” Rudulph said after the forum. “Transparency is a huge issue at Mills.”
She also still had questions about the protocol for when people are banned from campus.
“There was a student who had assaulted several students on-campus and was allowed to graduate from Mills and in a way they must’ve never been banned from campus or, for the purpose of graduating, they were allowed back on campus,” Rudulph continued. “So, I’d like to understand how that works. If you bring physical harm to students, do you get banned from campus? I think you should.”
Harris explained the department’s current system, Be On The Look Out (BOLO), which is a folder in the security gate booth and DPS office that has the pictures of banned individuals and is reviewed by officers.
Rudulph is concerned about the confirmation of names and faces and determining if a person is telling the truth.
Miles felt that the forum event was a good opportunity to meet someone in a position of power and also felt that some aspects of what Harris said were not fully understood, such as the hierarchy of releasing information and Mills’ protocols.
“I felt a lot of students were demanding something of her that she wasn’t able to give or the way she gave it wasn’t sufficient. To me, that’s just the way power is established in institutions. Not only at Mills but it’s everywhere,” Miles said. “I was really drawn to her intentionality around operating a better dynamic with students and Public Safety, and I do think there is a responsibility of the students as well to make an effort not to treat Public Safety as just an accessory to the campus.”
ASMC is planning to hold a similar open-forum event with the manager of Bon Appétit and Vice President Jadushlever. The date is to be determined.