Swarthmore Student Government Organization Adapts to a Changed Campus

In the current moment of mass uncertainty and social unrest, the Swarthmore Student Government Organization continues its work to represent and advocate for the needs of students, be they on campus or across the globe.  

On September 8, SGO elected seven new students to serve as senators for the 2020-21 academic year. Ten SGO members currently reside on campus while the rest are off-campus.

The new SGO members include Carissa Kilbury ’22 and Gabriela Hernandez ’22 who will represent the Class of 2022, and two at-large senators Annabel Zhao ’24 and Katee Kemether ’23.

Alyssa Zhang ’24, Khaliun Enkhbayar ’24, and Sarthak Harjai ’24 will represent the Class of 2024 as senators.

Enkhbayar and Harjai are both remote international students, attending college from outside of the United States. In an interview held over Zoom, Enkhbayar expressed concerns for remote students being able to connect, explaining that it was one of her main reasons for campaigning. 

“There are a lot of us everywhere, in our little rooms,” she said. 

SGO has adapted to a virtual format this semester and will hold executive board meetings on Sundays at 7:30 p.m. EST followed by Senate meetings at 8 p.m. EST. Meetings will occur over Zoom and SGO plans for them to follow the same structure as in-person meetings in previous years. Students can attend both the executive board and senate Zoom meetings. 

“Aside from ensuring that our meetings are engaging and meaningful, we do not have any concerns about the virtual format or our ability to still be an effective governing body,” SGO President Murtaza Ukani ’21 and Vice President Gabriella Vetter ’21 wrote in an email to The Phoenix.

The SGO’s goals for this year include trying to foster communication and engagement in the senate and within the student body. Initiatives include a planned reconfiguration of the governing body and committees in order to guarantee student representatives a fulfilling work experience. In addition, the Academic Affairs Committee is planning to speak to the heads of each academic division as well as to Dean Derickson and the Administrative Coordinator Debbie Thompson about implementing a potential series of “break days”, or days off from school to alleviate students’ stress. 

As SGO continues to work on their goals for this year, they are also reflecting on the events of the summer before classes resumed.

On June 1, SGO President Ukani and Vice President Vetter emailed the student body a response to the demonstrations and tension following the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor by the police. In the email they grieved with the student body and encouraged students to participate in and sign petitions for Black Lives Matter campaigns.

Ukani and Vetter stated that the presence of Swarthmore Public Safety on campus needed to be redefined and the connection between Public Safety and the Swarthmore Bureau Police Department needed to be ended. 

“90% of public safety calls are for unlocking doors. Black students have extensively detailed cases of profiling and traumatizing interactions with Public Safety officers. The pseudo police force has to go,” they wrote.

Director of Public Safety Michael Hill sent an email to the student body on June 12 in response. 

“In 2019, unlocking doors represented 8.6% of the work of Public Safety officers. Last year, it was 8.2%,” Hill wrote. “The balance of our time was spent in a variety of ways, including providing escorts for students and assistance to our community and guests, as well as responding to individual safety and medical concerns, noise complaints, and fire and intrusion alarms.”  

At this point in the year, both SGO and Public Safety have yet to send further statements to the student body regarding the events of June. Ukani and Vetter continue to offer criticism of Public Safety, especially concerning the actions of staff during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We hear vivid stories of Public Safety officers holding a double standard with respect to the Garnet Pledge — students adhere to one set of guidelines whereas surrounding residents continue to enter campus, bring their entire lineage and every pet imaginable, all while not wearing masks or social distancing,” Ukani and Vetter wrote in a recent email to The Phoenix.

While Hill offered statistics, Ukani and Vetter said they felt Hill did not fully address their concerns in his June email response. 

“The Director of Public Safety… completely dodged the fundamental concern we raised in our statement: We need to be allocating resources towards social services and not propping up Public Safety, an institution of harm and fear. We have yet to hear one purpose of Public Safety beyond unlocking doors for students.” Ukani and Vetter wrote in an email to The Phoenix. 

The two want to prioritize allocating college resources to social services on campus over Public Safety.

Michael Hill, however, emphasized in an email to The Phoenix that Public Safety does more than just policing and unlocking doors.

“In 2019, “unlocking doors” represented 8.6% of the work of Public Safety officers. Last year, it was 8.2%. Though not an insignificant amount of time, it is not nearly the majority of our focus… The balance of our time was spent in a variety of ways, including providing escorts for students and assistance to our community and guests, as well as responding to individual safety and medical concerns… among other issues,” Hill wrote in a recent email to The Phoenix. “Now more than ever, safety is our shared responsibility and we will work every day to be responsive to the concerns of our community.” 

As the semester progresses, SGO will continue to try and support students while they adjust to college learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. If students need to reach SGO, they can send an email to sgo@swarthmore.edu.

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