CA Private Colleges Are Seeking More Power to Police Trespassers

Private colleges are pushing for a Senate bill that would give them more power to police trespassers on their campuses

Private colleges in California are pushing for a Senate bill that would give them more power to deal with trespassers on their campuses, particularly those who repeatedly enter to harass students, CalMatters reports. But some students argue that the proposed changes could make campuses feel cut off from surrounding neighborhoods, and could lead to racial profiling.

Willful trespassing on campuses of K-12 schools and public universities in the state is considered a misdemeanor, and can result in jail time. Private colleges, however, can only issue warning letters under current law.

The bill, SB-748, authored by Democratic state Senator Anthony Portantino, would expand the state’s criminal code to include private colleges and universities as well. Under the proposed bill, people who “willfully and knowingly” enter a campus after having been banned would be subject to a fine of no more than $500 or imprisonment in county jail for no longer than six months, or both, according to the measure.

The bill passed the state Senate 34-0 in January and is scheduled to be heard by the Assembly Public Safety Committee on Wednesday.

Advocates of the bill, including the Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities, say the no-trespassing letters are ineffective because there isn’t a clear consequence for violating them.

During the pandemic, the association said it received reports of people entering campuses to make racist comments toward Asian American and Pacific Islander students. The 86-member organization also learned that people were entering campuses to sexually harass female students, according to Alex Graves, the association’s vice president for government relations.

A recent incident involving a trespassing individual occurred at the University of San Diego—where officials support the bill—when a homeless man barricaded himself in a campus bathroom and wouldn’t come out. He threatened to return again after officers told him to leave.

James Miyashiro, assistant vice president of safety, told CalMatters there’s been other incidents on the campus in which people come to play pick-up games and get into fights with students who have the space reserved, or when people make offensive comments to students.

When such altercations are reported to campus safety, officers have the authority to ask the person to leave campus. But if they continue coming back, officers will typically give them a letter to ban them from returning.

But “that doesn’t have a lot of teeth behind it,” Miyashiro said, adding that city police are hesitant to respond to trespassing reports on campus, especially during hours when the buildings are open.

“[The bill] will give an officer a significant level of deterrence,” said John Ojeisekhoba, the president-elect of a campus-policing association that supports the bill. “That will be the difference. Right now, there’s just no such thing.”

On the other hand, some argue that the bill presents unique complications.

For example, many private college campuses in the state are open spaces, including Santa Clara University and the Claremont Colleges, which support the bill, according to CalMatters. Community members pass through campuses regularly to walk their dogs or relax on the lawns.

The open layout of campuses makes policing trespassing “a very difficult line to walk,” Jessica Ramey Stender, policy director and deputy legal director of Equal Rights Advocates, a gender-justice nonprofit, told CalMatters.

“I think it shows the difficult position that universities are in, in trying to ensure that they keep their students safe,” she added.

Some students, including Alessia Milstein, who graduated this spring from Pitzer College, have raised concerns about how SB-748 could lead to racial profiling.

Milstein, who was involved in a club that educates students about prison and police abolition, said it’s also crucial to remember that every person is subject to having racial biases, and that giving campus safety officers the power to decide who belongs there and who doesn’t is “allowing those to run freely.”

“I just feel like it’s kind of the epitome, again, of why police don’t work,” Milstein said. “You’re trying to solve every conflict with a catchall that is rooted in colonialism and white supremacy.”

Having heard student concerns, Portantino said the bill isn’t intended to be used for anything other than “fostering prudent student and campus safety.”

“We have to make sure it’s applied in a way that makes sense,” he said.

Ojeisekhoba, who is also the chief of campus safety of Biola University in La Mirada, said he’s noticed a shift in how officers respond to reports of suspicious behavior on campuses.

He explained that his team responds to reports of suspicious behavior with dispatchers who are trained to ask more questions in order to determine whether there is actually an issue, as opposed to sending an officer. This method is meant to “reduce potential mistakes or the appearance of racial profiling,” he told CalMatters.

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