President, Director of Public Safety contradict status of investigation

By Justin Smith

News Editor

It’s not every day that Canisius makes the national news, but last week’s discovery of a baby doll hanging in a Frisch six dorm room thrust the College into just such a spotlight.  The incident engendered quick reaction from the College, as the Undergraduate Student Association and administration called for a meeting in the Grupp Fireside Lounge the very next day.  Public Safety had been notified about the doll at approximately 11:35 p.m. on Tuesday, and the meeting in Grupp took place at four o’clock on Wednesday.  Despite the investigation being less than 17 hours old, students were insistent on having answers and, with none immediately forthcoming, voiced their displeasure loudly and clearly to both President and former Griffin editor John J. Hurley, as well as Public Safety Director Wil Johnson.  Now, the lingering question is, what will Canisius do to discipline the perpetrators?  What is clear is that some students have been suspended, and that finalization of discipline is some time away.  What is unclear is whether the investigation is complete yet.

“The investigation is complete,” said President Hurley in a Wednesday interview with The Griffin.  “What I reported to the campus on Thursday represented the complete investigation.”

However, in a Tuesday interview with The Griffin, Johnson said the investigation was not complete, meaning that it also would not have been complete last Thursday when President Hurley emailed the campus.

“We are very close to completing it,” said Johnson. “We’re buttoning some last minute things up, but we are pretty much done with it.”  He added, “We intend to present our investigation within the next few days.”

As Hurley announced that there is an outside investigator looking into the incident on Thursday, it seems that the investigation is in fact still ongoing.  Johnson said that Public Safety interviewed “a lot of people,” which he quantified as “way over twenty” people, and possibly thirty or more, in addition to watching camera footage from Frisch.

“We have very limited resources number-wise,” said Johnson.  “We had people here working almost twenty-fours at a time because this was that critical of an investigation.”

Once the investigation is complete, which students should expect any day now, then Public Safety will present their evidence to President Hurley, various unspecified Vice Presidents, and Student Life.  From there, administration will decide upon discipline, although there is also an appeal process to go through which will extend the amount of time until the case is resolved.  Hurley confirmed that disciplinary cases are “underway.”

Some students at last week’s Grupp meeting wanted to know the names of the students involved in the hanging. However, Johnson said that it is up to Hurley whether or not names get revealed and, when asked if he had a sense of what Hurley would decide, he simply said, “I don’t know.”

“Every accused person is entitled to due process,” said Johnson, “and sometimes you are obligated to withhold people’s names because you want to make sure that somebody isn’t labeled as being an accused person when they are, in fact, not, because that can cause other problems, too.”

The comments that appeared to incense students the most were Johnson’s comments that, in the incident of the hanging, there was “most likely no ill intent”  and it was “not criminal.”  The Griffin sat down with Johnson on Tuesday to get clarity on his comments and to get updates on the status of the investigation.

Johnson acknowledged that there was “some misunderstanding,” and chalked it up to being “totally exhausted” that day from lack of sleep and the high emotion in the room.

“There was a lot going on that day,” said Johnson. “There [were] a lot of emotions.”

Johnson said that in his state of sleep deprivation, he “couldn’t get a good handle” on why what he was said was bothering people.  However, in hindsight, he acknowledges that he would have handled things differently.  The nature of the event perhaps was not conducive to Johnson.  On top of the exhaustion from his investigation and the short notice he had for being at the event, Johnson said that he would have much preferred to be able to sit down and talk to students.  Obviously it would not have been possible to talk to each student individually, but the point is this: Johnson’s comments unintentionally muddled the lines between legality and morality.

“It wasn’t that a single individual had been targeted by another student in this kind of way,” said President Hurley, addressing one of the more nuanced points of this whole incident.

Johnson talked about this facet of the incident in terms of the decision not to release a Timely Notification. Johnson said there was no Timely Notification issued for the event because there was “not a crime involved.”  He reiterated that it was a “horribly offensive and unacceptable event,” but that there was no “identifiable threat to any person or people on the campus.”  In other words, there was no “physical danger” to anyone on campus.

“[If] a reasonable person would believe that there was an identifiable threat to a person or group of people, then we would most likely send out a Timely Notification.”

According to the Department of Public Safety 2015 Annual Security & Fire Report, release of Timely Notifications are decided on a case-by-case basis and must constitute “reportable crimes which are: arson, criminal homicide, burglary, robbery, sex offenses, aggravated assault, motor vehicle theft, domestic violence, dating violence, stalking and hate crimes, as defined by the Clery Act.”  While this does appear to be a hate crime based on community standards, it may not be a hate crime by outside legal standards.  Clearly, Public Safety determined that to be the case.  Hurley also admits he determined that to be the case, although he brought in a former federal prosecutor to look at the case and he says that he is “willing to be guided by what the prosecutor says.”

Students, understandably, are sensitive about about the legal qualification of this incident as a “threat,” but it seems to be the case that if students have an issue with this, then they would be better to take it up with the qualifications of what is and is not a hate crime law at a state level or federal level, rather than the Canisius College policy, although students are certainly free to voice their concerns about their College as well.  Still, Johnson offered his perspective on the nature of the conflict between students and Public Safety.

“Part of the problem,” said Johnson, “is when you’re giving people as much information as you can, but you can’t tell them everything, they know you’re holding something back. But what I was trying to do was tell them as much of the facts as we knew them to be, to try to put people at ease, and I think it had just the opposite effect.”

Johnson said he could tell people assumed he was being dismissive, but says that he was not, and reiterated that the incident was “totally unacceptable.”  He said that, beyond his sense that people maybe tuned him out, his biggest concern was the idea that Public Safety was somehow trying to cover-up the incident.

“One thing that really bothered me,” said Johnson, “was people saying that they didn’t come forward with information because things have been swept underneath the rug, and I’m not sure where that’s coming from because I know that I haven’t done that.”

At least one student at the Grupp event said that the blame laid with a higher administrative power than Public Safety, and Johnson discussed the possibility that students may be misdirecting their ire.

“If you don’t know who to blame,” said Johnson, “you blame the police, and I don’t mean that negatively.  We’re visible, so it just comes with the territory.”

Johnson thinks that students are, understandably, concerned with their school studies, but that that may mean they have less time to understand what Public Safety does on a day-to-day basis.

The outcome of the investigation is important, because both Johnson and Hurley said that the result of the investigation will be the main deterrent from something such as this happening again.

“I think the swift response and the outpouring that we heard at the community forum last week made it pretty clear that this community cannot and will not tolerate things like that,” said Hurley.  He added, “The best prevention is a strong reaction.”

Johnson unwittingly echoed these comments, saying, “The speed of our investigation and the results of the investigation have spoken very loudly about the absolute lack of tolerance here at Canisius for this type of event.”

Johnson and Hurley also shared their opinion of the student protests surrounding the election and the baby doll incident.

“Students are free to protest on political matters,” said Hurley.  “I think we’ve had a long history on this campus of students expressing political points of view.”

Johnson expressed a similar sentiment when he said he “was glad to see people exercising their constitutional rights in a peaceful manner.”

Hurley also presented an optimistic view.  He said that America, historically has gone through tough times, and he implied that the country will make it through the unrest America is currently facing.

“Somehow,” said Hurley, “even when it looks very dark, we tend to get through it.”

President Hurley said “there’s work to be done” in order to address racism on campus, particularly in regard to winning “the hearts and minds of the [white] majority.”

“That’s the trick here,” said Hurley, “to turn talk into concrete action, and then the concrete action begins to shape people’s thoughts, and then you start to get some momentum.”

Johnson said the event in Grupp started “a conversation that should not stop.”  He encouraged people to “believe in each other” and “a common goal.”

“This conversation is very important,” said Johnson, “whichever side you’re on.”

The Griffin encourages people to keep talking, but more importantly, to keep pushing administration towards this “concrete action” that Hurley promises.  If some good can come from this, then it should.  Hurley said this incident represent “a great opportunity for the campus to grow and learn,” but that it will only happen if “people to actively engage.”

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