Ambassador program to manage off-campus student behavior draws mixed reactions

Tuesday, August 25, 2020 - 7:57pm

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The University of Michigan, in collaboration with the Ann Arbor Police Department, recently announced a plan to manage off-campus student behavior this fall. With classes set to start in a week and students moving back in, some are already partying in off-campus homes.

But the University’s new initiative, called Michigan Ambassadors, has provoked backlash for working with law enforcement, particularly after a summer of protests against police brutality. Others believe the program does not have strong enough enforcement mechanisms to be successful. 

The ambassador teams are made up of two to three people, comprised of students, staff, faculty members and community engagement officers from the University’s Division of Public Safety and Security and AAPD. The teams are currently walking around campus from noon to midnight daily until Aug. 30 in order to “serve as a visible presence and reminder to students and other community members of the need to follow public health guidance,” according to AAPD

The University also has a hotline for reporting concerns at 734-647-3000, designed to "reduce the need for law enforcement as a first response," said University spokeswoman Kim Broekhuizen. After receiving information about the concern, student ambassadors will call or text responsible parties. The hotline will be answered by DPSS after midnight.

After Aug. 30, the program will work Thursday through Saturday for the rest of the semester.

Dean of Students Laura Blake Jones said the program is student-driven and meant to engage the community. She said the officers would not be in patrol cars and maintained that the program is like a “neighborhood watch.”

“(This program) is similar to community engagement during Halloween weekends and Football Fridays,” Jones said.

Music, Theatre & Dance senior Jack Williams is the chaplain of Alpha Phi Alpha, a Black fraternity on campus. He said he thought some form of enforcement is needed, but he is concerned with the potential of the program over-policing Black students.

“Let’s say we’re not having a party, and it’s just a small kickback, not a lot of people, but that the police will be called on us still,” Williams said. “That’s my concern, and I think a lot of Black students at Michigan share that same concern.”

Others on social media have also noted that AAPD has a history of over-policing Black and Latino fraternities compared to the white fraternities on campus.

The program includes an opt-in registry program where nearby students are asked to address a reported concern first. Williams said he fears there may also be bias in students policing one another.

“So I understand the intention behind the Michigan Ambassadors program, but I fear racial stereotyping,” Williams said. “Black frats, we can’t have parties at all. If the cops are called for having a couple friends over, it could turn into a situation we don’t want it to turn into.”

Public Health junior Nithya Arun agreed with Williams. She said the University partnering with AAPD — when there are calls to defund the police — is unacceptable.

“We're having discussions on cutting back police ties and now (the University) is involving them to a greater extent on campus,” Arun said.

Jones said her experience working the first shift of the program Thursday night was successful and peaceful. She said the team mostly reminded people to wear masks and social distance.

“We would walk around and people outside would often just see us and wear their masks,” Jones said. “Our goal is to educate our community to ultimately call for social change.”

LSA junior Julia Henry worked a Michigan Ambassadors shift Tuesday afternoon. She said she thought it was important to help raise awareness of public health guidelines on campus but “not in a demeaning or harsh way.”

“Honestly, most kids on campus are doing really well wearing their masks,” Henry said. “I mean, obviously, we've had a few kids who were like, ‘Hey, put on your masks,’ and it's been pretty responsive. They're like, ‘Oh my god, yeah, of course.’ So it hasn't been too bad.”

Student ambassadors patrol campus.

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In an interview with The Daily last week, University President Mark Schlissel said the program was meant to be community-oriented.

“It’s not really an extension of the police or something,” Schlissel said. “So you’ll undoubtedly forget on some occasions to pull your mask over your face as you walk from some part that’s off campus onto campus, or as you rush out of your apartment or a student rushes out of their dorm room. So, these are people that are just going to remind you, and we’re hoping that a lot of enforcement really comes from changing norms.”

Language prohibiting unsafe gatherings has also been added into the Statement of Students Rights and Responsibilities, which Schlissel said will be used to hold students accountable after multiple warnings.

“Students who fail to come into compliance when they’re partying in town after multiple admonitions and many different tiered levels of reminders ultimately will be brought into the student code pathway or receive a citation that will be very expensive to them,” Schlissel said. “But that’s the last resort.”

The University also has "a system in place for holding students accountable for their actions, which depending on severity could result in sanctions, such as restorative actions, removal from housing, removal from specific courses or activities, suspension from the University, or expulsion," Broekhuizen said.

But Public Health junior Bushra Hassan said she does not think the Michigan Ambassadors initiative will work because she doesn’t think the consequences are strong enough initially for students defying the rules. She says the program seems like a friendly reminder to follow guidelines, which she believes will be insufficient.

“I don’t think they can effectively make people go home, because students can’t force students to do anything,” she said.

Though she thinks there should be heavier enforcement for misbehavior, she shares Williams' and Arun’s skepticism for how police might treat students of color. She said she decided not to call the police when she saw a recent party for this very reason.

“I saw a party like a week or two ago, but I didn't call the cops,” she said. “I didn't want to call the cops because of the history of them being racist.”

Arun said there needs to be some check on off-campus student behavior. However, she is not comfortable with the idea of having police stop people in the middle of the street and question them.

“I don't think the ambassador program as a whole is a bad idea,” Arun said. “But police involvement as a whole is a bad idea.”

Previously, Schlissel has been optimistic about student behavior, saying he is “a little insulted when everybody says there’s no way that students are going to wear masks, and there’s no way that they’re not going to party in dangerous fashions.”

But as other schools have closed down and shifted to all-remote learning after a spur of cases linked to off-campus partying, Schlissel conceded one party could upend the University’s plans in an email to students Monday afternoon.

“Infectious disease experts have been amazed at the velocity of spread of this virus,” Schlissel said. “They remarked that the actions of a few quickly changed the picture on campus in a matter of days even while most students were adhering to sound public health practices.”

“Preparations to prevent spread of infection have worked well in classrooms, residence halls and elsewhere on campus, but it’s behavior off campus that is the major risk,” Schlissel continued. “It just takes one unsafe gathering to upend all of the preparations we have made.”

Classes begin in one week on Aug. 31. 

Daily Staff Reporter Varsha Vedapudi can be reached at varshakv@umich.edu. Daily Staff Reporter John Grieve and Daily News Editor Claire Hao contributed to reporting.