Calvin College Chimes

Calvin a model for armed campus safety officers at Christian colleges

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Calvin a model for armed campus safety officers at Christian colleges

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Officials at Wheaton College in Illinois are looking to Calvin College as they consider arming their campus safety officers with firearms. Calvin officers have been armed since 2008, and there are currently eight campus safety employees who carry firearms, all former law enforcement officers.

The college adopted this policy following the Virginia Tech shooting in 2007 as well as a threat from a student at the seminary that happened around the same time. If an attack happened on Calvin’s campus, campus safety director William Corner and his staff realized, they were not adequately prepared to respond.

Campus safety spent the better part of the next year researching and writing a complete Use of Force policy to ensure that “if we were to do it we did it well […] so that it’s not just carrying firearms,” said Corner.

The decision-making process was campus-wide. Campus safety discussed the change not only with the president and cabinet, but also with student senate, faculty senate, the board of trustees, as well as the rest of campus through a town hall in which faculty, staff and students could ask questions.

“We tried to be very transparent about it,” Corner said. Officers carrying firearms are also equipped with body cameras which they are required to turn on before any interaction with a potential threat. This footage is recorded and accessible to review if ever there was an incident that required such attention.

The armed officers re-qualify with firearms at a shooting range once every three months, and they do additional annual training in defensive tactics and the use of pepper spray.

The reaction on campus when the officers were armed in 2008 was divided. Letters to the Editor flooded Chimes during the following weeks. Headlines such as “Guns meet theology” and “Gun crazy” peppered the Opinion and Editorial section. One group of students protested the guns with chalk drawings of bodies and slogans like “violence begets violence.” A 300-member Facebook group opposing the decision was quickly met by another supporting it.

“At the time of our decision, police shootings were not the significant news story and issue that they are today,” said John Witte, dean of students. “Rather we were focusing on the protection of our own community in an age of mass shootings and increasing gun violence.

At the time, the student life division published an article by Kristy Manion, the division’s project coordinator, titled “A Theological Explanation for the Use of Force Policy.” The argument centers on the command to love our neighbors:

“Loving our neighbors includes seeking their highest good in relationship to God; and as a secondary, but still quite important, good, protecting them from harm. […] This includes the threat of their physical harm.”

In the eight years since, there have been no situations in which the officers have had to use their firearms, and Corner said they have never reconsidered the decision.

“I’ve gotten a considerable amount of positive feedback from faculty, staff, students, community members, indicating their appreciation for the fact that we take their safety seriously and have come up with a way to respond should there ever be a threat of violence on campus,” Corner said.

Vice President of Student Life Sarah Visser echoed Corner’s confidence in campus safety’s commitment to student safety and officer accountability:

“The patrol supervisors and leadership team desire personal and collective accountability, and I have appreciated their desire to proactively anticipate campus needs as well as to respond to emergent issues with skill and sensitivity.

Many current Calvin students are comfortable with Calvin using armed officers due to their level of training and experience:

“I think as long as they’re trained and safe about it, then it’s for the benefit of the greater good. I don’t think it’s a bad idea,” said first-year student Anna Henson.

Senior Jeffrey Peterson pointed out the greater amount of accountability for campus safety officers than most law enforcement:

“There is such a big hierarchy here at Calvin above the campus safety officers that I could not fathom any kind of abuse of a weapon happening. There would be so much accountability for that.”

One Wheaton student told the Daily Herald that guns were less necessary on a Christian campus because of the “Christian atmosphere” that “helps build community and prevents against stuff like this happening.”

Calvin chaplain Mary Hulst pointed out the problem with that argument:

“Our campuses aren’t Christian,” Hulst said. “College campuses are porous. I think the student who says ‘this is a Christian campus’ is overlooking the fact that this is a community campus.” This porousness is good for engaging with the world outside the college, Hulst explained, but it also creates the possibility of someone entering fairly easily and threatening violence. Armed officers are a way to respond to that risk.

“I think we would all love a world where this wasn’t necessary,” she continued. “And I think the shootings at Seattle Pacific and at Virginia Tech, these are things that remind us that we live in a deeply broken world and this is part of the necessity of living in that kind of a world.”

“One of the things that continues to impress me about our campus safety team is their deep commitment to the Calvin community,” said Visser. Their goal is “to contribute to the flourishing” of that entire community. That focused mission, as well as thoughtful implementation of gun policies, has made Calvin a model that other schools are seeking to follow.

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