Barnard President Sian Beilock announced the cancellation of the college’s nationwide search for a new executive director of Public Safety in an updated safety plan released on Dec. 3. Instead, Barnard will restructure the role of Public Safety to focus on community safety under an umbrella organizational unit titled Community Accountability, Response, and Emergency Services, according to Beilock’s email.
The rebranding of Barnard Public Safety comes over a year after the college called for an external investigation into the office’s procedures and policies, largely spurred by an April 2019 incident during which six officers physically restrained Alexander McNab, CC ’19, for refusing to show his Columbia ID at the Barnard gates. The investigation’s results, released last summer, denied that there was any racist intent behind the officers’ confrontation of McNab, but pointed to how Public Safety lacks consistent guidelines for the execution of its duties.
This summer, student activists mobilized around the issue of campus policing following the wave of Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and many other Black individuals at the hands of law enforcement officers. Student group Mobilize African Diaspora wrote a public letter calling for Public Safety to be defunded with the money to be reallocated toward a model that “prioritized the safety of Black students,” a demand that has been repeated in numerous petitions signed by both students and faculty.
Most recently, over 1,600 students have declared a tuition strike until Columbia defunds its Public Safety program and invests in “community safety solutions that prioritize the safety of Black students and West Harlem residents, and repair harm caused by prior racist practices of Public Safety,” among other demands.
According to Barnard’s announcement, the three main responsibilities of CARES are to act as a first-response team, maintain community safety, and oversee Title IX and nondiscrimination cases at Barnard. The “first response” approach means that CARES will now handle physical and mental health crises and support for students with the aim of reducing escalation for “non-emergent” calls. Barnard Public Safety has previously come under criticism for its response to health crises; in 2018, officers called the New York Police Department on a student whose behavior they deemed “threatening,” leading to the student’s arrest before officers discovered that his actions had been the result of an epileptic seizure.
While focused on community safety, however, CARES does not change a number of Public Safety’s core responsibilities. Under CARES, Public Safety officers’ roles—now classified as Community Safety—of patrolling the campus, mitigating hazards, and emergency response will remain the same. According to the plan, Community Safety officers will still handle “emergency response” to any incident that is “serious, unexpected, and often dangerous.” Beilock claimed in her email that the shift of some Public Safety responsibilities to the first response team will allow Public Safety staff members to be more effectively trained in anti-racism and de-escalation.
Beilock has appointed Amy Zavadil, a former police officer, to associate vice president for CARES. Zavadil has served as the interim executive director of Public Safety since August 2019 and oversaw Barnard’s response to the murder of Barnard first-year Tess Majors in December 2019. Following Majors’ death, surrounding West Harlem communities saw a notable increase in NYPD presence in line with demands from students. Previously, Zavadil was also the associate dean for equity from 2011 to 2017 and was Barnard’s first Title IX coordinator.
Zavadil, who brands herself as a “change agent,” also implemented the wellness initiative “Being Barnard” and spearheaded an annual survey that measures the prevalence of sexual assault on campus. Zavadil’s arrival accompanies that of soon-to-be Director for Nondiscrimination and Title IX Elizabeth Scott-Francis. Her time as the assistant director of the office of residential life at The Juilliard School saw the introduction of similar wellness programming, including the Juilliard Thrives initiative.
“We are taking a first step in how to reimagine community safety, something that is everyone’s responsibility,” Beilock wrote in her email. “There will no doubt be changes to this structure as we move forward, but I believe we have the potential to serve as a model for other institutions across the country working to fulfill their commitment to an equitable, safe, and welcoming community.”