University oversight of fraternities questioned after Gorham standoff

Posted on January 27, 2014 in News
By Sam Hill

Last Wednesday’s Gorham standoff between local police and an armed USM student, Alan-Michael Santos, has raised a lot of questions about the university’s policies and procedures during emergency situations.

Santos, 23, of Winchester, Mass., a junior business marketing major, surrendered to authorities after a four-hour standoff with police, in which he barricaded himself in the Sigma Nu fraternity house on School Street in Gorham. Members of the fraternity called police after they evacuated the building when Santos, who was intoxicated, became belligerent while carrying a firearm. Authorities report that he will be charged with terrorizing and criminal threatening with a firearm.

No injuries were reported, but the university is taking a look at the situation and how prepared it was for it.

The Gorham incident has not only prompted community members to ask about emergency procedures, but also about the university’s control and administration over its two off-campus fraternities. Further investigation into university policy for its fraternities shows that the university does not prohibit students from carrying firearms or weapons in its fraternity houses.

According to the Dean of Students office, any dangerous weapons, from firearms to slingshots, “are not permitted on property owned by or under the control of the University of Southern Maine and off-campus activities sponsored by the University of Southern Maine.” But this policy does not apply to the residents of the Sigma Nu house, according to Executive Director of Student Life Joy Pufhal.

“We don’t own or control that property,” said Pufhal. “The current university policy does not prohibit the possession of weapons in off-campus housing. The way the weapons policy is written, they are not in violation.”

The Sigma Nu and Delta Chi fraternity houses are not owned by USM, but by a housing corporation that takes care of the property specifically for use by Greek life, so USM does not have complete control over these properties. The only point at which the university intervenes in activities at these locations is when the fraternities plan events at the houses.

When fraternities are planning any event at the residence that will be attended by more than 15 guests, they are required to register the event with Coordinator of Student Activities & Greek Life Dan Welter. Welter then visits the house to go over risk management and underage drinking policies with the house residents.

“I go down, usually an hour or so before their event is scheduled, and speak with designated brothers about the event,” said Welter. “We check in to make sure they’re checking IDs and that that person is certified to do so. Guests need to be signed in. There need to be designated sober brothers to help escort students back to campus. Things like that.”

Other than these meetings, the houses are only ever checked on for an annual security and fire safety inspection, which mainly deals with town of Gorham ordinances and building codes, or if there are criminal situations on the premises. While these are off-campus residences, they are recognized in USM’s “Annual Security Report and Annual Fire Safety Report” as living facilities of student organizations. The report states that, “through an interagency agreement between the Gorham Police Departments and Public Safety, information related to crime activity associated with these student organization, off-campus facilities is reported to USM Public Safety.”

According to authorities, during a search of the fraternity on Thursday morning, investigators found two handguns.

Since the fraternity houses are officially recognized in the annual safety report as student organization facilities, one would think that they would fall under the USM weapons policy that covers ““off-campus activities sponsored by the University of Southern Maine.”  However, this is not the case.

When asked to explain the confusion in semantics between the safety report and the USM weapon policy, Welter explained that there is, according to the University of Maine System’s interpretation, an ambiguity of phrasing that means that fraternity houses cannot be held to on-campus policies.

“That [the weapons policy] was one of the first pieces of policy that we looked through, and went, yeah, that’s a violation,” said Welter. But, he said, according to the system, what students do primarily in frat houses, that is “living,” is not a student activity. Therefore, they’re not covered under the umbrella of “off-campus student activities” that are controlled by the university.

When asked if the off-campus fraternities were controlled by the university and if they should be, Welter said no, he didn’t think the university should be in control because of amount of responsibility it would put on the university.

“It’d be tough,” said Welter. “With on-campus students, we have the resources to handle those responsibilities. We have a great team of resident assistants and staff to supervise all sorts of issues that come up.”

There are approximately 109 students involved with Greek life at USM. According to residency reports, there are 12 members of Sigma Nu living in their fraternity house and eight Delta Chi members in another.

Currently, residents of the fraternity houses are required to follow a set of rules outlined in a document titled “Behavioral Guidelines for Recognized Student Organizations Living in Off Campus Houses.” This document primarily focuses on noise, property and alcohol violations.

“The issues covered are those we have experienced before,” said Welter. “We’ve dealt with noise and alcohol before, so we know how to handle it. The institution has never had to deal with a situation like this before.”

Welter also said that he feels good policies are drafted in response to events like the standoff incident. The national chapter of Sigma Nu informed Welter that, in their investigation so far, they believe this is an isolated incident. Numerous attempts were made to contact members of USM chapter of Sigma Nu, but no one responded to comment on either the standoff itself or questions concerning USM policy.

The morning of the standoff, Executive Director of Public Affairs at USM Bob Caswell spoke with Portland-based news source  WMTW 8 regarding active shooters on campus. He assured the station that USM had a plan in place, but he hadn’t expected to have to see it in action later that day.

“Given what happened at Purdue [University] yesterday and other recent shootings, they wanted to just ask me about our basic communication [structures] and procedures that we have in place,” he said in an interview with the Free Press. “They [WMTW reporters] were asking me, ‘Have you ever had a situation with an active shooter?’ and I said, ‘No, thank God. Let’s hope it stays that way.” He commented that it was a strange coincidence. “Just goes to show that nobody’s immune from this kind of thing.”

While the campus didn’t go into complete lock-down, residential life staff was dispersed around campus to keep students in their residence halls and inform anyone in public buildings, like Bailey Hall and the Costello Sports Complex about the ongoing stand-off.

“The scene was contained [by local authorities]. Students were encouraged to stay on campus, but give those circumstances we didn’t see a need to lock down,” said Caswell. He went on to say that if the situation had been different and the event had occurred on campus, there would’ve been an entirely different response.

“As a student we all received a notice to stay safe and inside, and ResLife worked really well, effectively communicating with everyone to make sure all the residents were doing okay,” said junior elementary education major and resident assistant of Robie Andrews Hall Stephanie Brown. “Everyone was a little stressed, but there were no problems or anything.”

The university sent out emergency messages through the USM Alert Emergency Warning System, which sends out text messages and emails, and through university mailing lists. Resident students and members of the Greek Life mailing list were contacted, as they were recognized as students who would be directly affected by the stand-off. To receive messages through USM Alert, which is provided by a third-party company called e2Campus, students must sign-up with their contact information beforehand.

“We’re currently looking into our mailing lists and how we can make them more efficient,” said Welter. “One of the things we’re really focusing on is how we can communicate with other off-campus students in the immediate area during situations like this.”

Identifying who needs to be informed about emergency situations on campus is up to the USM Critical Incident Response Team, a group of USM staff members whose goal is to “generate accurate and timely information that helps ensure the safety of the campus community.” CIRT has the same communication plan in place for essentially all possible campus emergencies, including natural disaster, fire, active shooter and other violent crimes in progress, as well as some non-emergency situations such as notice of a deceased student, faculty members and off-campus crime that might be relevant to students.

CIRT is responsible for the communication aspect of emergency situations though. According to Executive Director of Student Life Pufhal, the protocol for dealing with the situations when and if they occur is the responsibility of USM Public Safety.

When the Free Press attempted to contact Public Safety regarding protocol for situations involving active shooters on campus, there was no one available who was able to discuss it at any length.

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