Guidelines: Listen, don't arrest, during student protests

Methods to prevent protests from becoming unrest

A new guide to handling student protests set for release this month focuses on a more nuanced approach, the Chronicle of Higher Education reports.

The guide from the Education Law Association and NASPA Research and Policy Institute encourages administrators to prepare for any possible student unrest, implement clear lines of authority, ensure students speech rights are not violated, and encourage civil discourse.

The document reflects a recent change in how higher education officials handle such protests.

Instead of tear gas and riot gear on campus—which grabbed headlines as recently as September–officials are now are more likely to engage students and discuss their goals.

Student protest policies at public institutions

"There is a recognition that it's not appropriate to treat students as if they are the enemy," says Angus Johnston, an editor of the blog Student Activism and history teacher at City University of New York's Hostos Community College.

It looks particularly bad from a public relations standpoint if police come after students protesting a hostile campus environment, Johnston adds.  

Though the NASPA guidelines are "written from a risk-management posture," they still recognize "the legal limits on administrative power to silence student speech," says William Creeley, vice president for legal and public advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

Among the recommendations from "Responding to Campus Protests: A Practitioner Resource" are:

  • Plan ahead. A standing command structure detailing who handles media requests, monitors ground developments, and makes decisions should be in place before protests ever occur.
  • Do not neglect the institution's mission. Establish speech policies that reflect the school's student population, setting, mission, and culture. Training campus police under such policies help them feel like a part of the institution instead of "adversaries of students."
  • Consolidate. Conflicting regulations regarding assembly and speech often exist at schools because they are scattered throughout discrete documents. Ensure consistency by bringing these policies together or cross-referencing them. 
  • Walk the line. Center efforts on regulating the manner, location, and timing of protests only as much as necessary to maintain order and prevent disruption. Public colleges should be especially careful about limiting content-based speech and requiring students to obtain administrative approval before protests. 
  • Monitor campus pulse via the internet. Monitoring social media can provide administrators with a good sense of tension levels on campus, the root cause, and the opportunity to address any false information being spread.

"There is no way to plan for every possible scenario," says Jeff Fowler, a Saint Louis University spokesperson, referencing possible protests following the grand-jury decision regarding a police officer's role in the death of teenager Michael Brown. "We found out previously this could go in a hundred directions. Our primary goal is to be as prepared as we possibly can be and have the right people on campus" (Bowerman/Schmidt, Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/12; Schmidt, Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/12).

More on student unrest

Managing campus protests

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