February 26, 2020

JOHNS | Let Cornellians Carry Pepper Spray

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Ten years ago this October, the Student Assembly unanimously approved a resolution formally requesting changes to a University policy that prohibits individuals from carrying pepper spray, a nonlethal chemical commonly used for self-defense, on campus. It was a moment of contention between the S.A. and the administration that many Cornellians today would find familiar — despite support throughout the student body, the University ultimately declined to implement its sensible and actionable suggestions for reform. As students formally begin their campaigns for the S.A. this week, they should consider revisiting this popular and important proposition.

The fall 2010 pepper spray resolution initially was introduced as a response to Cornell Police’s 2009 crime statistics, which listed “four reported forcible sexual incidents,” according to The Sun. That statistic is, unfortunately, but a fraction of the number of attacks reported by the most recent annual report. The Cornell Police’s 2018 crime statistics list 16 on-campus reports of rape, 24 reports of fondling and 23 reports of stalking in that year alone. In the footnotes, Cornell Police also note 48 reports of forcible sexual incidents in which “no location was provided or could otherwise be identified,” and an additional 36 reports of unspecified sexual assault in 2018. Although these statistics, by law, include some claims that Cornell Police have concluded are unfounded, the problem of on-campus sexual assault clearly has worsened. Campus security is a persistent challenge, and the University should be pursuing all available options to make Cornell safer. Indications are that many helpful reforms are being examined except, perhaps, the most obvious and sensible one: permitting students some reasonable form of self-defense against such assaults.

The time has come to address this. Ray Mensah ’11, then executive vice president of the student assembly and sponsor of the 2010 pepper spray resolution, rightly noted at the time that in light of these crimes, students should have the option of carrying pepper spray on campus to “add an extra layer of protection against” sexual and other crimes. Then Cornell Police chief Kathy Zoner — though she and the University opposed the resolution — acknowledged the obvious: “if properly used and deployed,” pepper spray can be “very effective” against potential assailants.

Despite this admission, Zoner ultimately argued that pepper spray can provide students “a false sense of security.” But both Cornell Police and Cornell students seem to understand that this security is not false at all. One Cornell student who regularly carries pepper spray, speaking on condition of anonymity given its violation of Cornell regulations, told me that she deems it essential to the security of female students. “After a friend of mine was approached by an aggressive individual on an empty street, followed by the two attempted robberies involving Cornell students who were walking home from the library late at night, I was done taking chances,” she said. “When it was too late to take a bus, walking home was the only option and it felt like a trap … after a few weeks being terrified to stay outside of my house past 10 p.m., I decided to have my mom ship my pepper spray.”

What is interesting about this Cornellian’s story is that she is not in violation of any laws and had no reason to be aware of the Cornell ban until she was in possession of her device. Pepper spray has been legal to carry under New York state law since 1996; the statutes allow individuals to carry a pocket-sized “self-defense spray device” on their person. In fact, during the 2010 pepper spray debate, S.A. members noted that Ithaca Police actually had on multiple occasions recommended that Ithacans invest in methods of nonlethal defense – including pepper spray – in response to a series of crimes committed across the city.

Nevertheless, the University objected. The Sun’s reporting on the pepper spray resolution includes outlandish rebuttals from Cornell Police and the University, which each noted that pepper spray “may not be effective if it is expired,” if it is “particularly windy” or if students are untrained in its use. But arguments about its ineffectiveness are not enough pretext for denying Cornellians a generally useful method of non-lethal self-defense. The sponsors of the resolution even were willing to require students to complete a University-run licensing course before carrying pepper spray on campus and “incorporating pepper spray training” into existing martial arts and self-defense seminars already run by Cornell Police. These reasonable proposals, however, were baselessly and unfortunately rejected.

It would be right to give Cornell students the option to carry pepper spray on campus, especially since it is already legal  — in the past, it was even encouraged — in Collegetown and beyond. But even if today’s S.A. or University administration is unwilling to accept that proposal, they should at least adjust enforcement procedures for pepper spray usage on campus. The final version of the 2010 resolution ultimately made a very narrow and reasonable request: “to change a current policy that bans [pepper spray] on campus and has led to [Cornell Police] confiscating the devices,” according to Mensah. Rather than threatening pepper spray owners with J.A. referrals, which endanger their academic and professional futures, the University should at least permit its use in cases of legitimate self-defense, if not join our peers at Brown, Dartmouth, Harvard and other universities in explicitly permitting the devices.

Students have a right to defend themselves on campus, and the University should ensure that its policies align with this right. It does not currently. As S.A. candidates roam the campus this week seeking support, they should consider including a simple promise to revisit and pass the 2010 pepper spray resolution. Cornell would be safer if Cornellians were better empowered to directly defend themselves from criminal acts, on campus and beyond.

The University states repeatedly that it is serious about preventing assault. They deserve credit for constructive rhetoric on the issue. But rhetoric alone will not defend students. The logical first step should be an obvious one: align University policy with New York state law and permit students to defend themselves, at least with non-lethal means such as pepper spray.



Michael Johns, Jr. is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. Athwart History runs every other Wednesday this semester.