Following alleged assault students question campus safety

by Amy Kingsley

An altercation at Guilford College on Jan. 20 that left some students with concussions and other injuries left others with questions about divisions on the Quaker-affiliated campus and concerns that administrators responded inappropriately to the violence.

When a student life staff member on overnight duty Friday and Saturday received a call that up to 20 people were involved in a fight outside Bryan Residence Hall, Guilford College records indicate she dispatched a security guard and left directly for the scene. Witnesses have disputed this account and have reported waiting up to 30 minutes for public safety to respond.

By the time she got there – about four minutes after she received the call – a fight that had started almost 20 minutes earlier was breaking up, Campus Life Dean Aaron Fetrow said, and three Palestinians had sustained serious injuries including concussions, a broken nose and a dislocated jaw.

The administration’s account of the college’s response is contradicted by student Laura Herman, who witnessed part of the altercation and said she called campus security to report the incident.

“The woman said they had already received a call about it,” she said, “so I took that to mean they were already sending someone.”

Herman said public safety officers didn’t arrive for 30 to 45 minutes.

Witnesses said they heard ethnic slurs and described the fight as an attack in which 10 to 15 members of the Guilford College football team ganged up on Omar Awartani, Osama Sabbah and Faris Khader.

Despite recognizing that the students had sustained severe injuries, to the degree that some of the alleged victims had trouble walking, neither the campus life staffer nor the security guard contacted the Greensboro Police Department. Although they encouraged the injured students to seek medical care, they did not call an ambulance.

“If we have controlled the situation ourselves,” Fetrow said, “we don’t bring in the Greensboro Police Department.”

In a statement released on Jan. 25, Students For Justice questioned the college’s decision not to alert local authorities.

“As a community that habitually experiences numerous accounts of bigotry and racism on this campus,” the statement read, “the message that is being sent to us due to this event is that there is not a guarantee of our safety.”

The Greensboro Police Department got involved a day after the incident when the Palestinians filed charges against their alleged attackers. Police arrested Michael Six, Michael Bates and Christopher Barnette on Jan. 22; Jonathan Blake Underwood and Jazz Favors on Jan. 25; and Micah Rushing on Monday.

The students’ injuries were diagnosed a couple of days after the incident when they heeded faculty members who urged them to seek treatment.

Throughout the week, during meetings and student demonstrations against the alleged hate crimes, Guilford College administrators have repeatedly portrayed the campus as a safe one on which violent events rarely occur. When violence does break out, campus administrators prefer to handle incidents extrajudicially, a system that police and administrators believe is in the best interests of students, Fetrow said.

Officers from the Greensboro Police Department answered 95 calls from the Guilford College campus during 2006. They handle traffic accidents, sexual assaults and drug and alcohol violations that require police intervention. Guilford College’s public safety office is comprised of non-sworn officers with no arrest powers. They can only detain suspects until police officers arrive to arrest them.

When the police respond to a fight on campus, they must file charges against those involved, Fetrow said. Parents often become angry when police charge students in conjunction with a campus flare-up, he added. Thus the campus adopted a policy whereby police are only contacted when a fight is beyond the control of public safety staff members.

The campus life staff member did deem the situation on Friday night serious enough to warrant calling Fetrow at home at 1 a.m., according to the college’s timeline. Fetrow said such a late night call is not unusual in the event, perhaps once a semester, that a brawl breaks out on campus. He said he stands behind most aspects of the college’s response on Friday night.

“There is one thing I am regretful of,” he said. “They said to us ‘we’re fine’ and we said ‘you need to go to a doctor.’ We repeatedly asked all involved to go to the hospital but it was refusal, refusal, refusal.”

Fetrow said in retrospect that he would have called an ambulance or at least requested EMT assistance despite the students’ objections. Because college students are adults, campus life staff members cannot force them to get into an ambulance or get medical treatment, Fetrow said.

“Due to the fact that we are a private university we usually handle things in-house,” said Kiefer Bradshaw, the interim director of public safety, “unless it gets beyond our control.”

Bradshaw said public security officers will call Greensboro police “for pretty much anything” and said they have a good working relationship with the department.

Fetrow said the fight lasted about four minutes, and by the time staff members responded those involved were shaking hands. He stands by his assessment of Guilford College as a peaceful campus.

Statistics kept in compliance with federal law revealed no aggravated assaults between 2003 and 2005 and no hate crimes. An incident log kept by campus security shows an aggravated assault last September and a weapons violation in March. The last officially reported racial incident occurred in September 2005, according to campus records.

“This is a campus that looks pretty divided today,” Fetrow said. “But we don’t fight here. The students who chose Guilford College believe in Guilford College.”

Student assessments of campus security vary. Outside New Garden Friends Meeting after a community meeting to address the incident, Mike Harris, a senior at Guilford, said the campus was safe.

“I’ve heard of fights,” he said, “but it’s pretty much both parties were at fault.”

Marshall Jeffries, a gay student who also described himself as an outspoken American Indian, pulled out a can of pepper spray.

“Safety here is an illusion,” he said. “It’s what’s done afterward that differentiates this campus from other campuses.”

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