At a crucial time, demonstration safety team looks to expand

Sharron Evans' first day on the job as Iowa State's associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students was May 18. Seven days later, a Minneapolis police officer knelt on the neck of a man accused of using a fake $20 bill, killing George Floyd and prompting widespread protests.

So when Evans met with Michael Newton for the first time, they talked about the activism that was sure to come to campus and the community. Newton, associate vice president for public safety and chief of the ISU Police, had a specific project in mind. He wanted to rebuild the demonstration safety team, which was formed in 2017 to engage student advocates on safe solutions for exercising protest rights but had fallen quiet in the years since. He'd been waiting to have a new dean of students on board to ramp back up. Now, a team of faculty and staff trained to respond to campus demonstrations seemed even more urgent.

"Chief came to me and said, 'We really need to get this team back together,'" Evans said. "We jumped in and moved forward right away."

After staffing about a half dozen events over the summer and fall, the demonstration safety team is looking to expand, both in size and scope. It is recruiting employees to grow its ranks and planning more training for members and student groups. 

"There will be a lot of firsts this year for the group that we're really excited about, and I think it's very timely given we have a contentious national election coming up. We're really trying to get ahead of that and be prepared," Evans said.

First responders

The team's purpose is ensuring campus demonstrators -- students and nonstudents alike -- are able to exercise their constitutional rights freely, safely and productively, within university policy. They work at protest events and proactively educate student advocacy groups. Members are trained on First Amendment rights, de-escalation techniques and Iowa State regulations on using campus space, Evans said. 

When on the scene of a demonstration, team members identify themselves to protesters and let them know they're available for guidance or support. They also can step in to speak with an individual whose actions are turning disruptive or unsafe, an effective first step for addressing a potential problem. 

"They're often times more willing to hear and respond more positively when it's a university staff person representing this team than our police officers, unfortunately," Evans said.

The demonstration safety team is in contact with senior leaders and works closely with law enforcement, but having university support other than police at protests is valuable because it allows officers to remain focused on public safety and avoid confrontation, Newton said.

"Part of my goal is to have police be the last response," he said. "Too often in communities, I see where the police are the first response. That's when things don't go well."

During a Black Lives Matter street march, for instance, ISU Police officers might concentrate on closing down roads to make a safe path. Meanwhile, demonstration safety team members might help protester support vehicles stay with the crowd as they pass through controlled intersections while simultaneously keeping an eye out for reckless behaviors by protesters, bystanders and observers. The different approaches complement each other, in part because ISU Police are an eager partner, Evans said. 

"Our police do an excellent job with our students and are so developmental in their approach. It makes it so easy to work with them in these situations," she said.

Growing the team

The 26 team members of the demonstration safety team devote about two to four hours per month to the work and come from a variety of departments and units. Evans said the team is asking interested faculty and staff to consider joining the team so it can ensure it has enough members to cover an event at a moment's notice. Email to join or learn more. 

"It's really about having enough diversity of people so that when spontaneous demonstrations happen, we have a variety of schedules so that enough people will be able to respond," she said.

Team members often hear of an upcoming protest a day in advance, but organizers typically don't disclose the location until shortly before an event begins. Once details are confirmed, Evans sends an email to the team to see who can attend. Evans and Newton, who co-chair the demonstration safety team, are always on scene. The team, which communicates via an online chat room during the demonstration, has protocols for what to do before, during and after an event.

Having more members also makes the team stronger because there are more chances that one of the faculty or staff members working the event knows a student involved, Newton said.

"That's part of why we want a cross-section of members from across campus. We can use those pre-existing relationships," he said.

Future training

Team members serve on five subcommittees: communications, health and wellness, student outreach, employee training, and event and records tracking. Training is a particular focus as the team rebuilds, both for its own members and student groups. 

Evans hopes to conduct more de-escalation training and a tabletop exercise, which would help the team gain experience. Newton said stressing neutrality is always an important aspect of training new team members -- and police officers. It's a difficult proposition for many people.

"We all have opinions. But as a member of this team, you have to be neutral. You can't be cheering and chanting and being part of the group. That is hard for some of the folks to think through," Newton said. "It's OK to tap out and say, 'This isn't the right protest for me to work because my viewpoint is just really strong in this area.'"

Both Evans and Newton are excited about a new training developed for student activists on what they should know before assembling.

"I think it's going to be really good for our students to see that we're here to help and make sure these demonstrations happen. We're not here to stop them from happening," Newton said.