Dean of Students Office begins judicial inquiries into protest participation

IN THIS FILE PHOTO, A TROY POLICE OFFICER RECORDS the protest next to the Voorhees Computing Center. The footage was later used by Rensselaer to identify students who were present.

The Dean of Students Office has begun pursuing judicial inquiries involving students who participated in the Friday, October 13 demonstration outside of Rensselaer’s capital campaign launch.

In these cases, the violations include “trespassing,” “violation of a published Rensselaer/student government policy or regulation,” and “failure to comply.” The violations have only been “reported,” as this is only the beginning of the judicial inquiries, and student responsibility for the violations has not been determined.

The Polytechnic was provided with an incident summary for graduate student Michael Gardner’s case, which was completed on November 1 by Director of Student Rights, Responsibilities, and Judicial Affairs Michael Arno. The summary states that “when the demonstrators entered a restricted area of campus, professional staff was instructed to identify demonstration participants.” It lists news coverage of the protest that identifies Gardner as “a protest leader,” and says that Gardner and Bryan Johns ’19 “appear to be involved in the leadership of the protest.”

The summary also says that “representatives from the Dean of Students Office and Public Safety were permitted to view video footage from the demonstration” that was provided by the Department of Public Safety and the Troy Police Department. “There was not information provided that indicates Johns and Gardner displayed actions to prevent the demonstrators from entering the restricted area of campus or to encourage demonstrators to leave the restricted area of campus.”

The summary goes on to say that “upon review of the information provided by professional staff at the demonstration, the information available online, and the information from the video footage, the following students were present at the protest and present in a restricted area of campus,” followed by a list of nine names. The Poly reached out to the individuals who were identified and listed.

Five of the students listed had received emails from either Assistant Dean of Student Living and Learning Kris Nolan-Parker or Associate Dean of Residential Commons Michael A. Sitterley prior to November 9. All of those emails included the following: “I hope this email finds you well. As you are aware, a demonstration occurred on our campus last month. You were identified at this demonstration. I would like to meet with you to discuss your experience at the demonstration. Please know that you are not in any trouble, but it is important that we meet.” Students were then instructed to contact the sender and schedule a meeting.

One of the students listed told The Poly that he “didn’t actually participate in the protest” and “was walking in the area of it since [he] usually use[s the Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center] when going home.” On November 10, graduate student Steven Sperazza and another individual, who were both identified and listed in the incident summary, were contacted by Administrative Coordinator Victoria Luzinas. They received emails that contained similar wording to those sent to other students, but differed notably in the following: “This is not a judicial matter, but it is important that you and Dean Smith meet to have an educational conversation.”

Apgar provided the following comment to The Poly: “It would be inappropriate for me to comment on any individual student’s situation related to the incident on October 13, 2017 in which individuals breached security barriers as part of an unauthorized demonstration which took place near the VCC. There is ample information to show that persons who have since been identified as current students were participants in the conduct. The area was partitioned off to accommodate an event that was taking place in multiple buildings in that area of campus on that evening. It is our duty to address such violations, and to determine the extent to which there may have been violations of Institute policies and standards. One of our goals in doing this is to educate our students, using every interaction as a growth and learning opportunity, and to respond with any appropriate consequences for the type and magnitude of the infraction. There are times that we accomplish these goals with simple non-judicial meetings and dialogue, and there are times when the conduct is serious enough that it is managed by the Rensselaer judicial process.

“In this particular situation, I had several conversations prior to October 13 in which I shared that, if people were to gather that day and comply with security procedures, including staying behind the partitioning, there would be no action necessary. That is not what transpired when the group made the decision to push through the partitioning and walk to the area of the event. I am incredibly thankful that no physical harm resulted from any of this group’s actions. There were highly tense moments during the time those individuals took the previously described actions, as it was unclear what they would do next. Thankfully, the Rensselaer Public Safety Officers, Troy Police, and other Rensselaer staff on the scene handled the matter with commendable calmness in the face of a crowd that did not seem to respect the boundaries.”

Update (November 15): This article has been updated to reflect the version printed in the November 15 issue of The Poly.