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LaGuardia Community College (LaGCC) in Queens, NY, is the host to multiple amenities and public attractions such as a newly renovated library, a theatre, and a 25-yard, six-lane swimming pool. In the wake of countless school shootings, does public access to the college make it an attractive target for the unthinkable?
A young man in bright red sneakers and pants that dangle precariously low holds the door for me. I thank him and enter the E-Building. I am greeted by a cacophony of laughter coming from three, maybe four, security guards standing a few feet to the left of the empty security podium. I assume that the on-duty security guard must be amongst the group. I have my student ID, out and ready. Armed with only a smile, I hold it up in their direction as I walk past.
Not a single eye turns in my direction, not a single greeting. Not even an acknowledgement. I turn around and watch another student endure the same “rigorous” level of inspection.
This sort of policing at a security checkpoint in a post-9/11 New York City is rare. It is even more surprising given that the televisions in the school’s cafeteria air reports about a high school shooting in Santa Fe, Texas on May 18th, 2018 where eight students and two teachers were killed, while ten others were injured. This is one incident in a string of inexplicable acts of violence in schools across the U.S., including the tragedy at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where 14 students and three teachers were shot and killed in February of 2018. With gun violence in American schools on the rise, and congress failing to respond to the outcry for stricter gun-control laws, many schools in New York City have assumed a stricter approach to security. LaGCC–a school that welcomes over 17,000 students, and an incalculable number of visitors-– seems to be playing catch-up with other NYC schools.
Compared to other colleges in the city, LaGCC is falling behind regarding on-campus security. Casey Gorevan, a Liberal Arts Major at LaGCC, says that LaGCC’s campus is “significantly less secure” than his last campus-–St. Francis College in Downtown Brooklyn. “If you didn’t have your student ID, you were expected to show security your driver’s license. They would then look on the computers to confirm you were a student and would then issue you a visitor’s pass,” adds Mr. Gorevan.
Similarly, at Brooklyn Law School, students are required to swipe their ID cards at a turnstile in order to gain access into the building. “If you didn’t have your student ID, security would ask for another form of ID. Then they would ask you to fill out a form detailing who you were visiting, which part of the building you were going to, and how long you would be there for,” recalls recent Brooklyn Law School graduate, Christina Salerno.
The Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), a CUNY school located in Lower Manhattan, has implemented stricter access to their three campus buildings. Like Brooklyn Law School and St. Francis College, BMCC requires students to present their student ID cards at all entrances in order to gain access to the college. “Student ID cards are swiped on card readers that then operate turnstiles,” says an official of Public Safety at BMCC, who wishes to remain anonymous. “If a student is unable to present their student ID, they have to give their student number/Empl ID, which is then verified in the system.” The BMCC official adds that visitors are able to gain access to any of the three buildings, but may only enter at main entrances. Visitors are also required to sign in–they are to provide a form of ID, and must complete a visitor’s sign-in form.
Access into LaGCC, on the other hand, as many students might agree, is a cake-walk. Upon entering any of the six entrances to the school, students are merely required to show some form of ID, whether it be an LaGCC issued student card, a driver’s license, a residence card, a green card, or a passport, that is, of course, assuming that the security guard on duty looks at one of the accepted forms of ID being presented.
Unfortunately, failing to provide such identification has zero consequences.
“We cannot refuse entry to any member of the public,” says Sergeant Lopez, the 1st Line Supervising Officer at LaGCC, who boasts a 10-year-long career. “We just ask them to please bring a suitable form of identification next time. These are the struggles of operating an open-campus.” Sergeant Lopez mentions that LaGCC, being a community college, is open to the public, which means that students as well as members of the public are welcomed onto campus, and are encouraged to make use of the college’s facilities. “I like the feeling of the open-campus. There are always new faces,” says Sergeant Lopez, half chuckling. “There were times not so long ago when not everyone had access to computers, books, or a swimming pool. People can find that here. But times have changed, so yeah…” Sergeant Lopez looks down at his scuffed police-issue boots.
It is clear to me that even though Sergeant Lopez and his team have placed the highest priority on student safety, there seems to be a disconnect between what is expected of the security team and the means in which they are supposed to perform their duties. According to Sergeant Lopez, none of the security guards are issued with any instrument (handcuffs, a baton, a taser, etc.) with which to possibly combat a high-threat situation, such as an active shooter. Sergeant Lopez reveals that in the instance of an active shooter, guards are instructed to call 911. “It can take nearly four minutes for the NYPD to arrive, and you know, that’s not good,” says Sergeant Lopez. One might compare that to a student going to the E-building Starbucks, ordering a cup of coffee, and being told to wait four minutes while the barista pulls out their phone to order them a cup of coffee on Seamless.
To be clear, this is not a call to arm the security officials at our school. By pure process of logical reasoning, the fewer guns on college property, the lesser the likelihood of gun violence. This is, however, a call for preventative action and not correctional action, in that we cannot afford to correct an active shooter incident. Instead, we need to prevent it.
James Grantham, Director of Security at LaGCC, agrees that prevention is the only option: “Crime prevention is happening the minute you step through those doors to the college. We have over 400 cameras, multiple alert buttons, and more than 70 officers at LaGCC who are highly trained in observing each person as they enter the school.” Mr. Grantham explains further that the officers are required to be inquisitive so as to quickly identify the behavior, nature, and purpose of every visitor entering LaGCC.
We each have our own laughable anecdotes of the times when security officials have waved us through the entrances without looking up from their phones, or they have been too preoccupied with paperwork, a colleague, or a lost first-year student to pay the entering public any attention – far from “inquisitive” response.
That being said, there are also instances where the school has made a physical effort to police areas of the college; in the library located in the E-building, students are required to sign in if they are unable to provide a student ID card. There are also many doors in the college buildings that can only be opened by faculty cards, and can, therefore, be locked with ease, protecting those inside. But what about students in classrooms? The majority of classroom doors cannot be propped open without the use of a desk, never mind be secured by some sort of locking mechanism.
Additionally, in the B-building, the security podium is located in a foyer past a stairwell leading to the basement level, which subsequently becomes accessible to anyone. Once at the bottom of the stairs, access to the rest of the B-building can then be gained from an elevator located on the basement floor.
With the completion of the library renovation in 2017 and a new west-facing facade of the C-Building currently under construction, LaGCC is continuously upgrading. But when will it be the security’s turn? “There are many plans on the table,” says Mr. Grantham. “We’re looking into the idea of drones, facial recognition technology, and electronic student cards that can be shown directly from your phone.” These are all admittedly very exciting means to protect our college. But unfortunately, Mr. Grantham is unable to provide a timeline or a date of arrival for such technological advancements.
Perhaps something simpler, or more immediate such as a card reader or turnstiles is more appropriate. “Turnstiles aren’t off the table right now either,” says Mr. Grantham. “We’re also hoping to install more cameras in problem areas like stairwells.”
Quron, a Freshman at LaGCC unwilling to share his last name, began his studies in September 2017 and has already observed what he describes as poor security. “At least make visitors sign in or something,” says Quron, as he fiddles with his headphones, “because right now they just let anyone in!” As Sergeant Lopez said, times have indeed changed, and LaGCC’s security procedures should too.
School security has never been a simple task, and incidents such as those at Columbine in 1999, Virginia Tech in 2007, Sandy Hook in 2012, and now Santa Fe High School, add urgency to the importance of student safety. Mr. Grantham urges students to communicate with the Public Safety team regarding any issues or suggestions for LaGCC security. Their offices are located in room M-145, and can be reached by dialing (718) 482-5558 (for non-emergencies) and 5555 (for emergencies dialed from a campus telephone) or (718) 482-5555 (for emergencies dialed from a mobile phone). “We welcome feedback and suggestions from students and staff. We need to talk! We need to work collectively as a community,” says Mr. Grantham. We are after all a community college.