October 14, 2010

Student Assembly Resolution Sparks Pepper Spray Debate

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A Student Assembly resolution that requests students be allowed to possess pepper spray on campus — which was passed unanimously earlier this month — is creating a campus debate. Members of the S.A. said that pepper spray would provide students added protection on campus. However, Cornell Police Chief Kathy Zoner said that the spray can provide a false sense of security, and students may be safer by using turning to other sources for protection.

Ray Mensah ’11, vice president of the S.A. and a sponsor of the resolution, said the S.A. is concerned by recently released Cornell police crime statistics, which list four reported forcible sexual incidents in 2009. Mensah said that many S.A. members think that the option of carrying pepper spray would “add an extra layer of protection against threats.”

Konstantin Drabkin ’11, former chair of the Cornell Republicans and the resolution’s other sponsor, said that pepper spray is a good option because it is effective from up to 20 feet away, significantly decreasing the risk of hurting oneself or the other person. Another benefit is that the spray contains UV dye, so police can accurately identify the assailant.

But under the University’s current rules, students may not carry pepper spray on campus.

“For purely defensive measures, this [rule] should not be the case,” Mensah said.

Pepper spray is legal in New York State, so the resolution is aiming to align University policy with existing laws, Mensah said.

In November 1996, New York State legalized pepper spray for self-defense, but Cornell continued its prohibition.

“I do not know if Cornell will adopt the resolution,” CUPD Chief Zoner said. “A lot more research needs to be presented. It’s a very emotional resolution with not a lot of groundwork.

It’s very uninformative and it requires people to look in another location for information.”

“If properly used and deployed, it’s very effective against some individuals,” Zoner said.

“We hope that if pepper spray is allowed, an assailant may think twice because the [victim] may or may not be carrying pepper spray,” Drabkin said.

According to Zoner, pepper spray can leave a person with a false sense of security. Many people carry the spray hidden in a bag or pocket and are not prepared for a surprise attack, she said.

Pepper spray also might not be effective if it is expired or if it has not been used in a long time.  Zoner additionally expressed concerns about the weather conditions. If it is particularly windy, the spray may blow into the user’s eyes.

“It’s pretty nasty stuff,” Zoner said. “It causes half an hour to several hours of pain and discomfort.”

“Zoner has valid concerns,” Drabkin said. “We want to work with her and the administration to make it as safe as possible.”

New York State laws regulating pepper spray provide that any canister has to have a label saying that it is for self-defense only. It must come with an instruction manual.

The S.A. resolution only sanctions the use of pepper spray for self-defense. According to Drabkin, the S.A. supports licensing — only making it legal for students who register and are trained in pepper spray deployment to carry it.

Mensah and Drabkin are discussing incorporating pepper spray training into martial arts classes offered through the Cornell physical education department and holding police seminars on self-defense with CUPD.

“The point is that no individual can say ‘I didn’t know [how to use the spray],’” Drabkin said. “We want to help would-be-victims, not create problems.”

CUPD officers carry pepper spray, but they are required to undergo extensive training and learn to continue fighting after being sprayed. Zoner said she is also concerned that students will deploy pepper spray on CUPD officers.

Zoner said that students have a lot of resources to defend themselves, some which are as simple as not going out while impaired by alcohol. CUPD also offers Rape Aggression Defense courses, which teach women to fight attackers. The courses cost $10 and are given three or four nights a week; Zoner says attendance for the classes is usually minimal.

The blue light escort service is also significantly underutilized, she said. There were only 25 escorts last month.

“There are a number of self-defense options. Those can by far do greater good than pepper spray,” Zoner said. “Pepper spray increases peoples’ confidence and if it doesn’t work, they get stuck.”

According to Zoner, of the nine forcible touching incidents reported between 2009 and 2010, three were discovered to be unfounded.

“CUPD is regulated by the Jeanne-Cleary Act.  It requires us to report all incidents that are reported to us,” Zoner said. “This does not allow us to remove statistics for cases where claims are unfounded.”

In six of the cases, the victims were intoxicated — some very severely — and knew the attacker, she said.

“The common theme is alcohol use and overuse,” Zoner said. Pepper spray is unlikely to be used in any of these situations, she said. “Even a highly trained individual is unlikely to use pepper spray on someone they know.”

There were many incidents of misuse before 1997, when pepper spray became legal, Zoner said. One person deployed pepper spray into a ventilation system of a building. This caused a 24-hour evacuation, during which the University had to rehouse people.

Zoner said she suspects that some students continue to carry pepper spray despite the University’s prohibition.

Drabkin argued, based on conversations with students, that many are unaware of the ban and carry pepper spray around anyway.

Lauren Weiss, assistant dean and director of the Women’s Resource Center, said that she would support anything that would make students feel safer and more confident.

However, Weiss feels that “the onus is on men not to attack women, not for women to protect themselves.”

“Sexual assault is a huge problem on college campuses,” Weiss said. “I wish the University took time to educate members about violence against women.”

Weiss noted that programs such as ConsentEd — which is meant to help women identify situations where friends are at risk and teach them how to ask for help — are in the pilot phase.

Original Author: Laura Shepard