By Elizabeth Landry & Colin Sheeley
News Editor Emerita & News Editor
At least 14 students have been brought under sanctions by Dean of Fordham Rose Hill (FRH) Christopher Rodgers for last Thursday’s altercation at Cunniffe House between Fordham Students United (FSU) protesters and Public Safety officers.
When a protest to get University President Joseph M. McShane, S.J. to respond to unionizing efforts moved into the building’s foyer, Public Safety supervisors blocked access to the reception area. Video footage posted online by FSU, The Fordham Observer, the paper and The Fordham Ram depicted a physical altercation in which a supervisor identified by FSU as Security Services Investigator William McSorley appeared to be pressing Sarah Lopez, Fordham College at Rose Hill (FCRH) ’18, into a wall.
This incident turned into a hostile conflict between Public Safety and a number of protesters attempting to go through the door. A segment of the livestream posted by FSU that was taken down and later edited out showed one student attempting to grab McSorley’s collar, and a number of students appearing to attempt to move him away from the door before a group of Public Safety officers came between them.
Director of Public Safety at Rose Hill Dan Kiely sustained a gash on his left hand and was treated at Montefiore Hospital, while another Public Safety supervisor received a cut to his forearm and was treated at the University Health Center, according to the university statement issued on May 2.
Of the students who received emails informing them of disciplinary measures against them on the afternoon of April 28, at least five were Rose Hill residents who were barred from campus that evening until 5 p.m. on April 30 on an Interim Suspension from Housing and Access Restriction. In some cases, the letters also barred students from Rose Hill campus entirely, and officially warned that another violation of the University Code of Conduct and University Regulations may result in action “up to and including suspension from the University.”
The full statement from the university says that after “demonstrators refused multiple requests from Public Safety supervisors to leave the entrance[,] Public Safety eventually cleared the protesters from the foyer to the porch of Cunniffe House, where they were allowed to continue their protest. No protesters were injured.” However, the university maintained that because of the “seriousness” of the students’ actions, the students would not be allowed on campus during the weekend with the exception of academically required activities. In a follow-up statement issued May 2, the university announced that the Office of Student Affairs received confirmation that all of those who were evicted “had family or friends to stay with.”
In public Facebook posts, FSU has called the officers’ actions toward the students “assault” and “racist brutality.”
Lopez, who is Latina, said in an email that when she tried to get past the guard, McSorley’s actions caused her to hyperventilate and cry in what seemed like a panic attack as he “wrapped his leg around [hers],” causing her to lose her balance as she could not release the door handle.
“I was alone in this room, surrounded by public safety, but I never felt more scared or endangered in my entire life,” she said. “No matter how much my friends demanded it, they were shoved aside, even though I was so scared I could not move.” Eventually Lopez was allowed to return to the protest, which continued on the front steps for about a half an hour.
Student and veteran Kyle Prütz, FCRH ’17, who stood near the door during the physical altercation was also confronted by three Public Safety officers when he tried to leave the area. After other protesters questioned why he was being physically held and asked to provide identification, the officers let him go. He said his glasses were broken in the incident and that he received a disciplinary email the next day.
The new university statement also called protesters’ claims “spurious” and stated “[Several] videos have been selectively (and deceptively) edited to give the impression that Public Safety supervisors used undue force against the protesters.” It references the original livestream video which was taken down within two hours of posting, saying that it “shows protesters using physical force against Public Safety staff to gain entrance to Cuniffe House.”
“In the intervening days, the University reviewed all the video and eyewitness evidence of the protests,” the statement reads. “Taken together, it is clear that the Public Safety staff showed maximum restraint in the face of the protesters’ physical force….[Some of the protesters] could have been charged with assault had the demonstration taken place off campus.”
FSU directly refutes many points of the university statement. In an email sent to Fordham faculty colleagues on April 30, FSU alleged that injuries were sustained on both sides. The letter states that the varying punishments imposed on the 14 students were “disturbing” and “vindictive,” claiming that those facing penalties produced no threat to the health or safety of the Fordham community and its student body.
They have also alleged on Facebook that contrary to the university statement, no students who had their campus privileges revoked were contacted to ensure a close proximity of family or friends for lodging. They say that at least one of those is a member of FSU who was not present at the incident while another only observed the altercation at a distance, “indicat[ing] the broad brush with which Dean Rodgers is painting.”
A petition asking McShane to “immediately reverse” Rodgers’ disciplinary decisions was signed by more than 1,400 members of the Fordham community over the course of a day. Though the petition “takes no position on the truth of the different accusations,” it accuses Rodgers of acting without adherence to the established university judicial process, asserting as FSU did, that “there is no vaguely plausible interpretation under which the students are a threat to the well-being, health, or safety of themselves or the community.”
“It is highly inappropriate to enact sanctions before [a fair process to adjudicate charges] even begins,” it concludes.
The university statement said that the disciplinary measures used are “routine for the level of disciplinary charges the students will likely face, and are part of the University’s long-established policy.” It states that in the last year 11 students were “temporarily denied access to campus in advance of formal conduct proceedings.” It also says that the “normal conduct proceedings” will take place in the coming week.
Fordham College at Lincoln Center (FCLC) Dean of Students Keith Eldredge said, “In a situation like this, because of the laws and regulations that protect student privacy and confidentiality in the student conduct process, we are not able to provide complete details.”
“Peaceful demonstrations are certainly part of the normal discourse the University expects and encourages on campus, but using physical force against any person is counter to Fordham’s academic and Jesuit values,” repeat the University’s statements. “Thursday’s actions by protesters mark a regrettable departure from the civility and care for one another that is a deeply ingrained characteristic of Fordham culture.”
FSU has noted that the university statement did not address the cause behind the protest.
The May 2 University statement from the News and Media Relations Bureau reads as follows:
On Thursday, April 27, 2017, at approximately 1:10 p.m., a group of student protestors forced their way into the foyer of the president’s office in Cunniffe House. At the time of the demonstration, Father McShane was at an off-campus meeting with presidents of other private colleges and universities about protecting the financial aid packages that New York State students receive from the State.
Public Safety supervisors blocked the entrance to the reception area and demonstrators attempted to physically remove a supervisor from in front of the door. The demonstrators refused multiple requests from Public Safety supervisors to leave the entrance. Public Safety eventually cleared the protestors from the foyer to the porch of Cunniffe House, where they were allowed to continue their protest. No protestors were injured. The director of Public Safety at Rose Hill sustained a gash on his left hand and was transported by Fordham’s Emergency Medical Service to Montefiore Hospital; another Public Safety supervisor received a cut to his forearm, and was treated at the University Health Center.
Peaceful demonstrations are certainly part of the normal discourse the University expects and encourages on campus, but using physical force against any person is counter to Fordham’s academic and Jesuit values. The University condemns the actions of those protestors who used physical force to make their point, and in the process injured two members of the Fordham community. Thursday’s actions by protestors mark a regrettable departure from the civility and care for one another that is a deeply ingrained characteristic of Fordham culture.
Several videos of the protest have been posted to social media over the last few days, some of which have been used to bolster spurious claims on the part of the protestors. Those videos have been selectively (and deceptively) edited to give the impression that Public Safety supervisors used undue force against the protestors. In fact a longer video exists that was posted by the protestors, and quickly taken down, which shows protestors using physical force against Public Safety staff to gain entrance to Cuniffe House, and in one case, a student grabbing the collar of a Public Safety supervisor, presumably in an attempt to pull him away from the door he was blocking.
In the intervening days, the University reviewed all the video and eyewitness evidence of the protests: taken together, it is clear that the Public Safety staff showed maximum restraint in the face of the protestors’ physical force. That is as it should be: the protestors are members of the University community, and the Department of Public Safety is charged with their care and protection. That does not excuse the actions of the protestors in question, some of whom could have been charged with assault had the demonstration taken place off campus.
Given the seriousness of the protestors’ actions, a number of students’ access to campus was suspended from Friday evening to Sunday evening (April 28 to 30), except for classes and other academically required activities. These measures are not frequently used, but are routine for the level of disciplinary charges the students will likely face, and are part of the University’s long-established policy (in the last year at least 11 students were temporarily denied access to campus in advance of formal conduct proceedings).
The Office of Student Affairs confirmed that all of the students whose access to campus was limited over the weekend had family or friends to stay with. The University stresses that these are interim measures only: whether the students in question face sanctions will be determined through normal conduct proceedings in the coming week.