Returning to campus in August 2020 required immense coordination to ensure safety and low rates of COVID-19 transmission on campus. Faced with the additional challenges of a pandemic made political, the Department of Public Safety and other offices around campus prepared to enforce mask and physical distancing protocols that some see as controversial.
Jacy Nary, who works in administrative management at the Department of Public Safety, said that over 100 Boise State faculty and staff joined a new Safety Ambassador program early in the fall 2020 semester in order to create a community effort to encourage voluntary compliance with the university’s new policies at the entrances of buildings on campus.
After recruiting the ambassadors, the Department of Public Safety provided training on how to approach campus members who needed reminders to wear masks and physically distance themselves in campus buildings or close proximity to others.
Aware that new semesters always include a learning curve to adjust for new systems, the Department of Public Safety, working with other departments across campus like the Office of the Dean of Students, wanted to establish clear expectations on campus from the onset of the semester.
“It was identified early on through Boise State’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic that facial coverings would be critical to the health and safety of our community,” Nary wrote in an email. “Our goal with the Safety Ambassador program was to pair the need for education regarding the criticality of facial coverings with the need for additional student outreach.”
John Kaplan, the executive director of the Department of Public Safety, said that the first and foremost deescalation tactic used by officers in public safety is to avoid argument, especially about a politically charged topic like coronavirus-related guidelines.
“It’s very clear in the law enforcement world, and the security world, that there really isn’t any room for politics in our decision making or how we carry out our functions and duties, and there’s very sound reasoning for that,” Kaplan said.
Kaplan emphasized that the Department of Public Safety staff trusts the most current and sound science related to keeping the Boise State community safe, which is reflected by the university’s mask and physical distancing policies. But rather than trying to use that as a justification to argue with those who don’t agree with those policies, their job is simply to strive for voluntary compliance with current protocol in all interactions.
“So, for example, if someone were to say to us ‘you’re telling me to put on a mask but I just heard a high ranking political figure’ — it doesn’t really matter what party they are from — ‘say that that’s not necessary, we would say, ‘well, we appreciate that,’” Kaplan said. “And we’re really not debating what you heard or what someone else said, we’re just here to tell you that at the moment, at this point in time, [this is] the university policy, and we, all of us, have to comply with that policy when we’re on university grounds.”
Dr. Leslie Madsen, an associate professor of history and the associate director for educational development in the Center for Teaching and Learning, served as a Safety Ambassador for a shift and emphasized wanting to avoid unjustly criticizing young students on campus dealing with multiple adjustments in their lives.
According to Madsen, being cognizant of broader political contexts like racial justice movements and the election as well presents both challenges and opportunities for the university to respond to intersecting conflicts and difficult questions.
“How do staff and faculty and students and members of the Boise State community respond?” Madsen said. “What tactics and strategies can we use to de escalate conflict, and keep it at a level of healthy academic discourse?”
Those are questions that the university will continue responding too, according to Kaplan, but the mission of the Department of Public Safety allows for the immediate safety of the campus community to take priority over politics.
“We really do our best to excise politics out of the equation immediately, because it’s never about politics, and frankly it’s never about our personal opinions,” Kaplan said. “What it’s about is doing the right thing at the right time to ensure safety and security and doing it in a safe and secure and dignified manner.”