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More housing, more security at NY community colleges

Solvejg Wastvedt

“Community college” used to equal “commuter school.” Students came to class during the day and went home at night. Now that’s changing: a 2013 report from the American Association of Community Colleges found that a quarter of campuses now have on-campus housing, and with it a 24-hour schedule that creates some security challenges.   

When Binghamton-area community college SUNY Broome opened its dorm a year and a half ago, everything changed at work for campus peace officer Marie Finelli.

“We went from one little teeny office to a giant building,” she says. In fact, the SUNY Broome public safety building isn’t exactly giant, but it does at least have several rooms. It’s tucked into the middle of campus, with a white-lettered sign over the door. At 9 p.m. on a Thursday it’s still lively, as an officer checks in for his overnight shift.

Finelli says before the dorm was built, none of the officers would be starting work at that time. SUNY Broome added the weekday overnight shift when nearly 400 of its 6,000 students started living on campus. Public safety went to a 24/7 schedule and hired new officers. Finelli says call volume increased.

“You’re talking about 366 18-year-olds and 20-some-odd-year-olds,” she explains with a laugh. “They’re all from different areas, they’re all away from their houses, there’s a lot of drama.”

Finelli tries to head off that drama by being out and about. She and the other officers walk through the dorm on just about every shift. She gives students a wave or a “what’s up?” in passing. She clearly loves this – at the campus gym she plops down on the floor next to a student watching three-on-three basketball and asks how his EMT classes are going.

“It’s like being a parent,” Finelli says. “It’s like being a parent to all the students here. Some of them will say, ‘Hi mom!’”

But for some, the student-officer relationship is too close.

“I think you’re over-protecting us in a way,” says freshman and dorm resident Chris Russo. He says the constant presence does make him feel safe, but it’s odd to see an officer every night when he comes back to the dorm after work. He adds that one time an officer woke him up knocking on his door to investigate a noise complaint. Russo says he respects public safety, but he wonders how much good it all does.

“Nobody takes public safety seriously, I’m going to be honest,” he says, “And I guess maybe it’s in the title: public safety, you know, they’re not like police officers.”

Finelli knows this is a problem. The SUNY Broome force recently changed lettering on its patrol cars to read “campus police” instead of “campus safety.” She says that helps.

Credit Solvejg Wastvedt / WSKG News
Tompkins Cortland Community College is an old-timer in the on-campus housing game, with dorms in place since 1999.

A few counties away at Tompkins Cortland Community College, public safety director Beau Saul has had years to build up authority on campus. TC3 added dorms in 1999. In 2008, when Saul arrived, campus safety expanded and took over the housing from a private security firm. He says it was a culture change, but the “out and about” approach SUNY Broome is using helped them get established.

“You don’t get called into a situation where the only time someone sees you is when something went south, or in an antagonistic way or an adversarial way,” Saul says.

SUNY Broome’s culture change is partly in the hands of newly-hired Dean of Students Scott Schuhert. He says for some residents, living on campus isn’t just an appealing extra.

“[I] regularly talk with students who wanted to get out of their current environment, their families wanted them to get out of their current environment, and this was an opportunity for them to try out college in a safe way,” Schuhert says.

Community college is an intersection – of affordability, low barrier to admissions and now safe housing. Apartment-hunting in a strange city is intimidating, but moving into a dorm is much less so.

Solvejg Wastvedt grew up in western Pennsylvania and graduated from St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minnesota. Over the summer, she served in Los Angeles as an intern on NPR's National Desk. Plus, before coming to Upstate New York, Solvejg worked at the Minneapolis community radio station KFAI. When she isn't reporting the news, Solvejg enjoys running and exploring hiking trails.