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News / Clark County News

Clark College faculty expressed concerns over campus safety before May stabbing

Spokeswoman says college emergency response was successful; some staff disagree

By Griffin Reilly, Columbian staff writer
Published: June 15, 2024, 6:03am

Clark College faculty leaders had repeatedly expressed concerns to school administration about campus safety issues months before a college employee was stabbed in the neck in May.

Vancouver police responded May 14 to a stabbing outside the Archer Gallery on Clark’s main campus. About 10 minutes after police arrived, the school went into lockdown.

Clark spokeswoman Maureen Chan-Hefflin said the emergency response to the incident was a success. The school’s alert system — which sends messages directly via text message, email or both — reached more than 90 percent of registered devices, she said.

But some faculty leaders on campus argue that the response was chaotic and confusing and further highlighted concerns about campus safety they had brought to the school’s executive cabinet in February. While alerts may have been sent, they said, people without access to their cellphones or computers might not have been aware of the situation.

According to emails shared by union leaders, representatives of the school’s two largest faculty unions told members of Clark’s executive cabinet in February that the school’s emergency alert system was hindered by spotty cell service and Wi-Fi across campus, and inadequate loudspeaker systems.

They also said staff were concerned that they wouldn’t hear announcements in loud parts of campus or receive alerts in areas without computers. Similar concerns were presented to school leadership in 2022 as well.

“As (Clark leaders) might be aware, certain areas on campus (Culinary and Frost Arts Center, for example) cannot adequately hear emergency alerts because of background noise associated with these programs,” Courtney Braddock wrote in a Feb. 5 email. “For Culinary in specific, this problem has been ongoing for more than five years during which time the employees in Culinary have consistently shared their frustrations with the Safety, Security and Emergency Management department.”

The same email exchange revealed that several of Clark’s executive cabinet members have not yet completed a series of emergency preparedness trainings as school rules mandate for such positions.

After four days with no response, Braddock sent a follow-up email. An eventual response from Brad Avakian, Clark’s vice president of human resources, did not address Braddock’s concerns.

During a meeting Wednesday evening, Clark’s board of trustees earmarked $200,000 for security and safety upgrades across campus, a proposal submitted by faculty members.

The upgrades include replacements and repairs to several loudspeaker systems across campus. Chan-Hefflin said several such systems were already in the process of being added or repaired at the time of the May 14 stabbing using $100,000 in existing funds earmarked for the current school year. Clark sent an email to all staff about the funding and its specifics Thursday evening.

“Their response to (our February letter) was slow, and it wasn’t necessarily as cooperative as we would’ve liked. But now, they’re starting to install more speakers,” said Suzanne Southerland, the president of Clark’s faculty union. “I can’t say whether it’s in response to this assault or whatever. I believe they were already in the process of this but that this probably got them going a little faster.”

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A second incident

During the stabbing investigation, Vancouver police said they learned that the day before, the same man had attempted to carjack a woman parked in a lot adjacent to campus. After attempting to pull the woman from her vehicle, the man fled on foot, according to police and court records. Police identified the suspect as 31-year-old Salvador Aguilar. His criminal case is still pending.

Braddock and other staff said they learned of the carjacking incident only from a police news release after the stabbing.

Because the attempted carjacking occurred off campus, Clark security referred the incident to Vancouver police officers, who took a report. However, court records state that police learned of the incident only after speaking with campus security following the stabbing.

Clark College posted limited details of the incident on its own online crime log per the Clery Act, which requires colleges and universities to keep a log of crime that occurs on or near campuses.

Some staff including Jeff Kaliner, the school’s emergency response manager, said Clark College could be doing more to publicize such incidents to its campus community.

“I was disappointed that information wasn’t shared about the attempted car theft on May 13 so that our community could use that information to make decisions about where they spend time on campus going forward,” Kaliner said.

Report pending

In the weeks following the May incidents, Clark held two forums to get input from the college community in putting together an after-incident report. The report will include what happened and what various school leaders can learn from it.

Chan-Hefflin confirmed that such a report is still being finalized, but it has been delayed by the busy end-of-school-year schedule.

“This input had to be collected, distilled, and a draft report was released last week and is currently being circulated for review,” she said via email Thursday. “And we just had the budget for security improvements approved yesterday. So, as the pieces come together, the anticipated release date for the (after-action review) document is next week some time.”

Southerland said the stabbing had a significant impact on the mental health of many of her students and co-workers. Compiling such a report quickly after the incident would be a way to better convey to the school community that Clark has identified ways to improve future emergency responses.

“I personally have received various emails from faculty who say they’ve been triggered by that event emotionally,” Southerland said. “Working in education, especially for today’s students, the possibility of a school shooting is something that for a lot of our students is always in the back of their minds. They grew up with those incidents.”

She, Braddock and other staff members argued that the two “listening sessions” held regarding the incident were poorly advertised and poorly attended.

“I understand we may not want to dwell on it, but this is an opportunity for campus leadership to express concern by sharing regular updates about what the college is learning about how they responded,” Southerland said. “I think that would share a lot of respect for the community.”