WHEATON, Ill. — When Bria Jenkins heard of a proposal for Wheaton College that may include arming its public safety officers, she didn’t fear for her well-being as much as she feared for her boyfriend’s.
“I’m terrified of what would happen to him,” said Jenkins, a junior at Wheaton College, a Christian university in suburban Chicago.
As an African American woman, she knows how it feels to look different in a school of 2,400 that has just 60 other black students. Black Americans are 2.5 times as likely as white Americans to be shot and killed by police officers, according to analysis from The Washington Post. Of all unarmed people shot and killed by police in 2015, 40 percent were black men.
The issue of arming college campus safety officers is embroiled in a larger debate nationwide over gun violence and safety, as well as concerns about police and racial profiling. Across the nation, small, private colleges such as Wheaton tend to not use sworn police officers to patrol their campuses. The latest Bureau of Justice Statistics survey found that just 38 percent of private colleges in the United States use sworn officers, most of whom carry a firearm, chemical spray and baton.
The possibility of armed public safety officers is still in its very early stages of consideration, according to Wheaton spokeswoman LaTonya Taylor. But just the idea has stirred controversy on campus, especially among people of color, including the assistant director of the Office of Christian Outreach, Matthew Vega, who believes that Wheaton should fight the tide of Christian colleges arming public safety officers.
“What sort of theological message are we sending to our students who’ve come to realize that our safety as a Christian community is predicated on intimidation and self-preservation?” Vega wrote.
If such a proposal passes, Wheaton would join the growing number of Christian universities that have armed their campus police, like Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., and Taylor University in Upland, Ind. According to Calvin College’s director of campus safety, William Corner, school officials made the decision in 2008 to arm their officers in the wake of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting, which resulted in 32 deaths.
Debate over guns on Christian colleges has been brewing since last December when Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. encouraged students to get concealed weapon permits. Liberty, which now has about 15,000 on-campus students, has had armed campus officers since 1980, according to Liberty police chief Richard Hinkley.
The university has 48 police officers who carry semi-automatic pistol firearms and have the same authority to arrest as local police do. “Our love of the Second Amendment isn’t something new,” said David Corry, general counsel for Liberty.
John Ojeisekhoba, chief of campus safety for Christian college Biola University in California, has done consulting for about a dozen campus leaders considering arming their public safety. He said only one of the campuses he consulted with has opted to not arm their officers.
“What I found is that most colleges that have a public safety department that are unarmed are at the mercy of the local police department, which could be five, 10, 15 minutes away,” Ojeisekhoba said. “On the other hand, you have public safety folks, they could get there in 30 seconds or 40 seconds. Even 40 seconds in an active shooter situation probably feels like an eternity.”
He said that when he became chief, only he and his deputy were armed, but in the past eight years, his officers have become police academy trained and almost all 18 of them are armed now. Ojeisekhoba, who was born in Nigeria, said that the national conversation on racial profiling has reached Biola’s campus.
“For me as an African American, I see it both ways,” he said. “Have I been stopped before? Yes, I have!” He said that campus leaders have taken steps to create dialogue between students of color and and campus safety.
Some Christian college leaders have opted to not arm their campus police. David Dockery, president of Trinity International University in Illinois, said school leaders decided to work closely with local police rather than arm security officers.
“The trend is certainly moving in the direction of arming safety officers,” Dockery said. “The fact that campuses are no longer the ‘safe spaces’ that they once were is causing everyone to ask different questions.”
Wheaton’s chief of public safety, Bob Norris, who wants to look into arming public safety officers, told the campus newspaper that school officers who are more familiar with the campus and are closer will be able to respond to crises like campus shootings more efficiently than the city police. The idea has found support from the chief of the local police department, James Volpe, who told the campus newspaper, “Armed officers on campus are the best security in this climate of campus shootings.”
Because Christian colleges such as Wheaton have such low crime, many students believe school officials are overreacting to a threat that is far from campus. Wheaton saw no aggravated assaults on campus from 2012 to 2014, according to the most recent statistics made public by the 2015 Clery Act Report.
Charissa Fort, a junior at Wheaton who is black, thought that the school’s Public Safety Department might be projecting the fear it senses on much larger, non-religious colleges onto Wheaton’s campus.
“I think Public Safety is coming from a place of extreme fear, as they read more and more about things going on in other college campuses, and they might be actualizing in their minds that happening at Wheaton,” Fort said.
Some students feel like the school would make a logical step if it were to arm their public safety officers, considering it takes several minutes for the city’s police department to respond to an on-campus emergency.
Matthew Adams, a black senior at Wheaton, said that he believes the “Christian atmosphere” of the campus acts like a deterrent against crimes.
“I think there’s already been precautions to protect against things like that escalating,” Adams said. “Worshipping together, chapel together … a lot of that helps build community and prevents against stuff like this happening.”
However, Spencer Sherland, a senior at Wheaton College who is white, said that even though a community is Christian, it would not prevent people from outside of Wheaton from committing acts of violence, and that’s where an armed campus security could potentially save the day.
“It’s not a matter of our community,” Sherland said. “It’s the opportunity for someone outside our community to come in and cause harm. Someone who would attack us would probably do it out of hatred for our religious views.”
Time magazine reported that 23 shootings took place on college campuses in 2015, with the Umpqua Community College on Oct. 1 the deadliest. Police officers shot and killed the perpetrator after he shot and killed nine people.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that the possibility for Wheaton to arm its security officers is still under review.