Disturbing Semester’s End

I had anticipated writing a happy “Finals Are Over!” blog entry at the end of the week. Instead, we are dealing with the aftermath of the disturbing events that happened as law enforcement officers broke up a student gathering very early Friday morning.

I was called to the scene by some frightened students at about 2:30 am. After talking with a group of undergrads still gathered there, I went to check on the hospitalized and arrested students. When I came to the office later in the morning, we began gathering information to understand what went wrong. Here is the statement we sent out via email:

This morning at approximately 1:30 a.m., Wesleyan’s Department of Public Safety requested assistance from the Middletown Police Department to help disperse a crowd on Fountain Avenue. According to the Middletown Police, there were in excess of 200 students on and around Fountain Avenue who would not disperse, verbally abused police and threw objects in the direction of police officers. The police decided to forcibly clear Fountain Avenue. The action resulted in the arrest of five Wesleyan students, two of whom were brought to an area hospital for medical attention. Both were treated and then released into police custody. Students who were at the scene have reported to university administrators and to the police that law enforcement officers used excessive force and were verbally abusive during their action in clearing Fountain Avenue.

We have met with concerned students since the incident occurred and request that anyone with first-hand information about the incident please send a statement via e-mail to mroth@wesleyan.edu and mwhaley@wesleyan.edu. We will continue to work with Public Safety, Middletown Police and review statements from student witnesses in order to ascertain the facts surrounding the event. We plan to communicate what we learn about the incident as well as our plans for follow-up as soon as possible. As always, our concern is for the safety of our students and our neighbors in the Middletown community in which they reside.

Mike Whaley (VP for Student Affairs) and I have received dozens of reports from eyewitnesses. I’ve spoken with some police officers and the Chief of Police. We are piecing together the most reliable account possible to understand what went wrong and why. We are reviewing all this information, and I will be meeting with Middletown authorities to follow up on the many complaints our students have made about the use of force. We will also be reviewing our own policies as well as the behavior of some members of the Wesleyan community.

I do not intend to host a debate on this blog about who was at fault. We continue to gather information, and I will consult with student, faculty and Middletown leaders about our findings. By better understanding what went wrong this week, we can greatly improve the chances that an event like this will not happen again in our community.

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18 thoughts on “Disturbing Semester’s End

  1. President Roth,

    It disturbs me that you have not yet made a public statement condemning this unprovoked, completely excessive police violence. I also don’t know why you weren’t at the forum yesterday sponsored by the WSA to discuss this issue. You are saying here, as Dean Mike said yesterday at the forum, that all the facts aren’t in yet, so you can’t pass judgement – at this point, you sound like someone denying global warming is occurring, in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence. There are photographs, video, and the testimony of hundreds of students to attest to the fact that the police acted brutally and excessively to break up a non-violent, non-destructive student gathering that happens much like this at the end of school every year. A friend of mine was threated with a taser for politely requesting a police officer’s badge number, and overheard MPD officers say “Let’s get these bitches” before descending on the crowd. And you claim to have all the facts yet? As a Wesleyan senior, I now feel unsafe on a campus where the University President won’t defend his students from getting beaten by the police!

  2. I am gathering the testimony of students and others, and I am doing so not to make the public statement you desire. I am gathering the testimony (which so far presents a variety of perspectives) so as to make it less likely that incidents like this will happen in the future. That means I will present evidence, and not just my own statements, to Middletown authorities in hopes of changing the relationship between the campus and the police department. I believe this will be most effective at achieving a positive outcome.

    I am truly sorry you feel unsafe now on campus. Please let me know if there is anything I can do between now and graduation to make that any better.

  3. I think it is important to recognize that event’s of Friday morning are not an anomaly, but one that finds precedent in earlier altercations between MPD and Wesleyan Students. Obviously, whatever actions the University took to follow-up on the previous events were not enough to prevent them from happening again. It would be worthwhile to look at what steps the University took before in determining what should be done this time to have a more effective response.

    I personally think that the change will lie in the public stance the University takes on the issue. We need the Administration to be explicit and eloquent, not slick and vague. Violence against the student body is an issue that demands the University take a stance, rather than offer revised, PR-rhetoric about what it hopes Wesleyan-Middletown relations will be in the future.

    Please show respect to the students who were injured and their families by acknowledging the violence taken against them and the University’s disapproval of this level of violence.

  4. Some “ancient” history, folks, so listen up!

    There was a similar disturbance during May, 1954 involving student activity during a VFW Parade down High Street, including the arrest of one of three Afro-American students (he later became a Federal Judge in Los Angeles). The Middletown police over-reacted.

    Looks like nothing has changed in 54 years.

  5. Read the majority of the 98 comments (and counting) on the Hartford Courant article covering the story (http://www.topix.net/forum/source/hartford-courant/TDSL63GO9F4HIB7S8), and you will see quite a bit of anger and resentment among the residents of Connecticut towards Wesleyan University and its students. I know that in some strategy statement in the ’90s Wesleyan made it a goal to pursue better relations with Middletown, but if this whole incident and the residents’ reactions are any indication, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

  6. I would say I agree with both George Klein & Max. Nothing much *has* changed. It’s possible that relationships between the people (and not just Wesleyan students) and the police have gotten worse over the years. The relationship between the police and undergrads was very contentious during the ’90s when I was at Wes. I am at the degree of violence used by the police (although not at all surprised, unfortunately) but I am not overly impressed with throwing beer bottles, rioting in the name of party (although I do not have all of the details nor was I there, so this judgment could be too early). I do believe in civil disobedience, was this the right time to engage in it? I honestly don’t know.

    I’m not entirely sure what can be done about this problem between the police and Wes students. I do think it’s part of a larger problem between police and citizen groups. However, it’s clear that waiting for the police to treat Wesleyan students (and substitute here any group of people who have antagonistic relationships with the police) better obviously is not the solution. I hope Wesleyan – including students and not just the administration (I mean, the police doesn’t have problems with the administration, do they?) – can figure out a way to resolve and address the current issue as well as how to go forward without this happening again…and again…and again… Because, and perhaps I am just pessimistic this morning, I don’t see an end to this kind of relationship if nothing is done, if nothing fundamental changes.

    Finally, I would like to acknowledge that as unfair as it may seem, the comments of non-Wesleyan folks are probably not way out of left field. The easiest thing to do is to dismiss these people as crackpots. I think this would be a mistake. Folks obviously have a problem with Wesleyan students. To ignore that is to rely overly on one’s own privilege (educational, socio-economic, racial). Owning up to that privilege, working out ways that one can address that privilege and meet people without the same privilege on some common ground would help, I believe. Otherwise, resentment will continue to grow.

  7. President Roth..To dovetail on Max’s comment, developing better relationships between the University and town should be your highest priority. The problem goes both ways. The town, clearly, has no idea what the University’s mission is and the University and by impicLation, the students, play into the stereotype which some have of Obama….no understanding of the plight of working people who struggle to make ends meet. Until mutual understanding is developed between the University,which by and large serves the priviliged, and the more working class nature of the town, tensions will continue to simmer. You must defend your students against police brutality and, at the same time, you must get the students to see how their actions are viewed by ” working people”. This is a very similar situation to what Yale faces or USC on the Wesr Coast…Pres. Roth, you have a big challenge ahead of you but one which is at the heart of bringing this country together. Many of these issues were the same faced in the 60’s and 70’s. How to build an alliance between students and working class people?….Make that a major goal of the University and you will have taken on a most critical challenge…Glen Pritzker…P’07, ’11

  8. President Roth,
    To put it very simply, If you do not make a clear statement condemning the brutal acts committed by MPD on Thursday night you do not deserve to be our president. I understand that it takes time to gather the facts and determine what happened, but three days have past and I have not seen or heard anything close to an unequivocal condemnation.

    It is obvious that a few students misbehaved, and most of them are being punished for it, but there is no way that the police can justify their actions. The time to gather information is quickly passing, I demand that you stand up for the Wesleyan students whom you claim to represent.

  9. I agree it is not a valuable exercise in getting into a debate about what happened on this blog

    I’m curious if you had already been notified by public safety that there was a problem at 1:30am or that your first word came from students at 2:30am?

  10. I am sorry, but I truly believe that if there were 200+ (underage) drunks blocking a road anywhere that the police would try to break it up peaceful…but if needed they would use force. What makes you think that Wesleyan students should be treated any differently than anyone else? There was probably only 5…maybe 10 police at the scene and 200+ people rioting against them. That is a dangerous situation for those police officers and I think it was within their right to protect themselves. And you certainly can not say this was unprovoked. First public safety was called to the scene and they could not handle it and thus called in the police. Then instead of the student just going else where to party they provoked the officers by throwing bottles at the officers…I am sorry that is a dangerous thing to do as it could seriously injure a person.

  11. President Roth: I am the father of an incoming freshman, class of 2012.

    At this point I doubt if mutual finger-pointing between the police and Wesleyan is going to get much accomplished. Probably more beneficial is to establish healthy and positive channels of communication to the point where the police and the students can agree that there is room for improvement on both sides.

    I was present at your address to prospective students and parents on Open House day on October 12, 2007. At that time, one of the audience asked you if you had one wish for Wesleyan University, and your answer was quick and unequivocal. You said that your wish would be to double the University’s endowment. As reasonable as that wish sounded at that time, I am wondering if you would rather prefer to update that wish to making establishing better relationships with the Middletown community (including the police) as a top priority. I think that would make some sense in the light of last weeks events.

    For the students my recommendation is that they think seriously about the legacy they leave for future incoming students. To the extent that their actions may leave a trail of resentment in the town and among the police, the legacy they leave to future students will be a troublesome one. This is not a fault-finding point of view, but one that looks at the reality of how emotions become hardened into fixed attitudes: while graduating students take their resentments with them when they leave, the resentments in the community stay behind to the detriment of new students.

    Therefore, for current students, it is a worthwhile exercise to once in a while ask yourself: If I were an incoming student, what kind of atmosphere would I like to find at Wesleyan as far as relations with the surrounding community is concerned? With this kind of mindset, I am sure that you would want to leave a positive legacy for future students, and I am going to make sure my son understands this.

    Thank you, and I still think my son made an excellent decision to come to Wesleyan.

  12. As a new resident to Middletown I have no bias against Wesleyan students, so let’s get to the facts here. If you are told by your own public safety to clear out and you don’t, you have lost the right to complain when local law enforcement arrives at your schools request and takes action. Hopefully you will have learned your lesson and you all go into the future better citizens.

  13. Peter Salisbury ’03
    I address this to all.
    I was visiting Wesleyan a few years ago and there was a similar problem when students blocked off Main St. to have a party there. It is clear that this was a blatant attempt to provike the police. Luckily nothing happened then.
    This incident also reeks of privileged University grads attempting to provike the police force. If students are told to disburse and don’t what are the police to do. Why would the students not leave. They can go anywhere. There were no crowds blocking them in. I have been in similar situations. If you don’t mess with the cops they will not pepper spray you. I just can’t believe that people are complaining here. This is not police brutality. This whole situation and its roots (there was no protest here) is shameful. The students who were arrested should be dismissed and President Roth should apologize to the Town. These police brutality claims make a mockery of Rodney King and others.
    Dialogue is not necessary we, as a University were clearly in the wrong, our student broke the law and the Police responded. I wish the parents of those students who were arrested could see a video of how immature their children were acting up until the police acted. Additionally were those students who were arrested tested for blood alcohol content.
    Look, I had plenty of fun at Wesleyan. Too much sometimes, and threw many parties that spilled out into the streets. This is a clear cut case of student picking an unnecessary fight. There is no oppresion here. The cops probably did say stupid stuff but that is what cops do, especially in an intimidating environment. There is resentment but that is a fact of life. The Police are working on Saturday night while the student are drunkenly reveling what would you expect.

    Other Problems. Why does the university not own all the houses on Fountain/Home Avenue. Reality: the University has in the past attempted to purchase them but the slum landlords who own them refuse to sell even at a premium. There is no reason for such town university integration in those places. Ideally there would be peaceful interaction but in reality there will always be loud students and working people trying to sleep.

  14. President Roth,
    I am appalled at your failure to release a statement that actually indicates an opinion a full four days after the incident. This is a complete outrage, and should be treated as such. Furthermore, as a result of my contempt for the actions you have taken this past year, topped off with this, I am almost certainly going to transfer next year out of fear that you will continue to screw up the school.

  15. I feel that the Wesleyan student body should apologize to the Middletown Community and the MPD to improve our relations with them. Admitting that we were at fault would actually gain us more respect, while criticizing the police force for ‘unnecessary brutality’ would only make matters worse.
    When a conflict arises between two groups of people, someone’s got to take the initiative and mediate the situation. That “someone” might as well be Wesleyan, since after all the students pride themselves on being assets to the greater community.
    President Roth: I’m sure you feel torn right now because you are getting mixed messages. But I strongly wish you would take my advice. I’m actually an incoming freshman, and I’d like to matriculate knowing that the student body is on good terms with the MPD. I will also do my part by not getting overly drunk and disobeying the cops.

  16. President Roth,

    As a Wes alum (01′), I am deeply disturbed by what transpired on Fountain Ave on Thursday night. Reading the many accounts of students who were maced and bitten by MPD dogs makes me very angry and dissapointed that such a blantent misuse of police authority can happen here in the US. This type of brutality needs to stop. Remember, most of the students were over legal age, were in front of their own houses, were not violent, and no police officer was physically threatened. As the president of Wesleyan, I expect you to issue a strong statement condemning the actions of the MPD and to support any legal action that may occur as a result of this incident.

  17. Glen Pritzker (Item #7 stated “The town, clearly, has no idea what the University’s mission is…”

    After a 33.5 year career as a Professor (Univ. of Pittsburgh, Univ. of Pennsylvania, Univ. of Illinois @ Urbana-Champaign), I have often wondered, since graduating from Wesleyan and working in a variety of unviersities, if the Wesleyan Administration, faculty, students, alumni and Board of Trustees know what the mission of a real university is. Recent events during the past month raise substantive doubts.

  18. Let me add to the previous comment.

    It is critical for public credibility that an American university be perceived by society as an “Honest Broker”. It is unclear to me if the Wesleyan Administration, and others in the Wesleyan Community understand this. Perhaps the hostility towards Wesleyan by the local community may, IN PART, stem from the lack of clarity on the university’s public role.

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