Wall recall: How a fight in Palm Court, one of the lowest paid police departments in the county and state metrics have jeopardized a campus tradition

Wall recall: How a fight in Palm Court, one of the lowest paid police departments in the county and state metrics have jeopardized a campus tradition

Photo courtesy of Stefan Drakulich
Photo credit: Stefan Drakulich

The funk ended before it could start.

As was the case for third-year student Mei Jing Bernard upon finding out that her Wall, Get FUN-ky, occurred on a weekend night where the New College Police Department (NCPD) was understaffed. With her Wall still weeks away, Bernard finds herself with several options to choose from. However, she is also at the center of an issue that has been brewing since this summer.

On Aug. 30, the NCPD was two police officers short of its standard thirteen, and missing two of the normal five dispatchers present. At an annual leave of 3,036 hours, a yearly salary of $38,500, the NCPD, according to Chief Officer Michael Kessie, is one of the lowest paid, and lowest staffed, police departments in the Sarasota-Manatee county.

“We had [one of our] officers go to the Sarasota Sheriff’s Office,” Kessie said. “He works Monday to Friday, weekends off, holidays off and I can’t compete with that.”

According to Kessie, the decision to request overtime pay comes out of a need to ensure better working conditions to the NCPD, as well as follow the lead of other college and university police departments in the area that require compensation for covering weekend night events.

“A police officer takes a minimum of 8-12 weeks [of training], but that doesn’t count the background investigation or their testing to vet them,” Kessie said. “If someone were to tell me today that we had fourteen positions, it would be April or May before the person would be on their own.”

Broken bottles and the Wall Times White Paper

Walls are required to have two police officers on duty. This administrative decision occurred after an incident in Sept. 2008, when a New College student was physically assaulted in the middle of Palm Court by a non affiliate of the school, commonly referred to as a townie.

“…he noticed a fight of some sort breaking out in Palm Court during the Wall dance party. He advised that he did not witness any blows, but did notice an erratic movement from at least three non-New College of Florida students. He advised that one of them had a beer bottle and attempted to break it to create a weapon,” a witness statement in the incident report reads.

The two police officer policy was also followed by a 2 a.m. curfew set for the Walls.

“Despite strong pushes from students over the next few years, the administration refused to lift the curfew,” Alum and former New College Student Alliance (NCSA) President Oliver Peckham (‘08) said in an email interview. “At various points, they insisted that additional security was necessary and offered to ‘compromise’ if students paid to staff private security or additional police officers. Eventually, conversations with the administration (and a bold Sunshine Law request by Jordan Martin) made it clear that the administration knew that it was unlikely that students would be able and/or willing to bear the cost of the additional security, and that the ‘compromises’ offered were meant to discourage interest in rescinding the curfew.”

The incident was recorded in a document known as the Wall Times White Paper. The 2 a.m. curfew was officially lifted on April 22, 2011 but was later reinstated in Aug. 2015, following two on campus deaths that had occurred the semester beforehand.

During my time, whenever the school cracked down on Walls in any way, it was a reflection of administrative priorities,” Peckham continued. “The NCPD was typically happy to staff whatever events they were asked to, but the amount of security necessary (or the acceptability of the event in general) was, in most cases, determined at the discretion of the administration and their event policies. I don’t mean to uniformly demonize the New College administration here — many members of the administration responded positively to firm, respectful negotiations, and in general, the best antidote to administrative overreach has consistently proved to be responsible self-governance — something at which Novo Collegians excel.”

Patrollers, Pot and a Private Institution

Walls have been a staple at New College since its inception. What started off as informal gatherings in the middle of Palm Court became NCSA funded, organized and advertised events that utilize school-funded equipment. They are seen as being emblematic to New College culture. The relationship between the police and the student body was distinctively more relaxed at this time, even as the institution merged with the University of South Florida (USF) in 1975.

“In 1975, when NC [New College] merged with USF, there were uniformed USF cops on campus, much to the chagrin of students,” Alum Lila Bricklin (‘74) said in an email interview. “But, I don’t think they had any power, at least that I can recall. Utilization of all drugs and drinking (you could drink legally at 18) was done openly with no punitive action. It was always known that NC [New College’s] campus was a cop-free zone in terms of the real world on the outside. The only time real cops were on the scene was if music got too loud at PCPs [Palm Court Parties, now known as Center of the Universe Parties] in response to near neighbors’ calls.”

At some point between its merge with USF and break in July 2001, tension increased to a point where there was a semester where Walls were banned on campus.

“I have never seen as much alcohol abuse as the semester without Walls,” alum Richard Butgereit (‘91) said. “Those that drank, drank as heavy as I have seen anyone drink that semester. Instead of a few or three drinks before midnight, and then a few more while actively dancing it out and visiting with friends in the wee hours of the morning, campus dwellers were wasted by 11 p.m., and passed out shortly thereafter.”

Something Worth Fighting For

At the Sept. 18 Towne Meeting, NCSA co-President, Paul Loriston, and Vice President of Financial Affairs (VPFA), Cheikhou Kane, announced a survey requesting student input on what to do about the current understaffing issue for Walls. According to Kane, it will require an additional $10,000 to be able to compensate two police officers overtime pay for covering the Walls.

During the meeting, Kane listed several options:

  • Having the NCSA pay for overtime for the NCPD, which would be nearly impossible out of the very limited NCSA budget.
  • Have Student Affairs cover the cost of the overtime pay for the NCPD, which would require Wall hosts to work intimately with Student Affairs to ensure that their event is substance free.
  • Appeal to the New College alums to help fundraise the money to pay police officers overtime.

Whatever solution is picked will be done so with the idea of being a permanent solution to this ongoing, and historically recurring, problem.

“After I graduated, I kept looking for events like Walls in other places,” Peckham  said. “I failed. It’s hard to overstate the rareness of a regular event where so many types of people feel so welcome. Whether you’re there to dance your heart out or talk your troubles away – and yes, whether or not you’re drinking – Walls welcome you with open arms. To have that kind of a space, where New College’s various weirdos and miscreants can feel safe, free and welcomed under the palm trees — that’s a special thing. It would be a shame to diminish that experience in any way, and it’s something worth fighting for.”

The hiring committee for new police officers will occur in October. Students interested in being a part of the hiring committee should contact NCSA co-President, Paul Loriston, and current Police Liaison, Dominic Theofan.

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