The Weekly Ringer

The University of Mary Washington Student Newspaper

Students and faculty question no-pepper spray policy

9 min read

Es Hethcox | The Blue and Gray Press


Online Editor & News Editor

Flipping through a University of Mary Washington student handbook or reading through forbidden items in residence halls, students can find a list of forbidden items including: drugs, fireworks, and hover boards. There is one item on the list which concerns students.

Buried in a long list of forbidden items that allegedly may “pose a danger to the UMW community,” is pepper spray.

The discussion of UMW’s prohibition of pepper spray has caught the attention of students and faculty alike.

Of 83 students and two professors who responded to a survey on SurveyMonkey about whether they agreed with this policy, the vast majority said they did not. 79 of the 85 participants in the poll said they believe pepper spray should be allowed.

Senior psychology major Sierra McCahon, who is a sexual assault survivor, feels the university should do more to protect students.

“I believe that the school does not provide enough protection for students and often concerns of safety are just dismissed,” said McCahon. “I am not supportive of this policy because there have been rapes on campus and I feel like I should be able to protect myself.”

McCahon went on to comment about the presence of crime on campus.

“If there was never any crime on campus, I could maybe understand the policy,” said McCahon. “That simply isn’t the case.”

Some students feel that school administration is responsible for fostering a safe campus, yet still disagree with the policy.

“I think administration has the responsibility to keep campus safe,” biology major Ali Myers said. “But I believe that students having mace (and self defense training) would make this an easier task for all involved.”

Students recognize the intent behind the policy may be beneficial, but feel that there are various issues attached to it.

“I think the policy is misguided and it punishes the people that are most at risk from sexual assault, harassment and violence of all kinds by robbing them of tools to defend themselves,” said sophomore biology major Sarah Akers.

Other students acknowledge the administrations reasoning behind the policy.  

“Mace can chemically harm someone (cause blindness/skin irritation and things) and there can be someone who uses their mace prematurely,” said senior history major Rachel Dacey. “I think UMW is trying to prevent an accidental use and injury.”

Origin of the policy

About the policy, there is a universal question of why it is in place.

This ban on pepper spray first appeared in the 2013-2014 edition of the student handbook in the section contains rules of Residence Life. The policy is also included in section one of the Student Code of Conduct, a document which is separate from the student handbook.

As identified in an email from the Vice President of Student Affairs Juliette Landphair, this ban exists campus-wide.

A screenshot of the UMW Student Handbook (2013-2014). Photo taken from the UMW Archives website.

The Student Code of Conduct states that possession of “Illegal or unauthorized possession of firearms, explosives, fireworks, other weapons, or dangerous chemicals,” is a violation “of community standards.”

But according to Ray Tuttle, director of student conduct and responsibility and UMW employee since 1996, before it’s introduction to the handbook the policy was still being upheld informally.

“As I recall, we’ve had a policy prohibiting pepper spray and similar chemicals for a long time – certainly before the 2013-14 academic year,” Tuttle said. “It might be that mace was specifically mentioned that year simply to clarify the intent and scope of the policy.”

According to Tuttle, prior to 2013-2014 if there was an incident in which a student “discharged mace, particularly if the discharge had harmed others” the student would be held accountable for the incident under the Code of Conduct.  

Screenshot of Student Handbook sections banning mace. Photo taken from UMW Archives website.

UMW records do not indicate any occurrence that instigated the creation of the policy. Although there may not have been an instigating incident involving pepper spray, UMW administration officials voiced their concern of the danger pepper spray has to the university community.

Administration’s perspective

Originally unfamiliar to the policy, University of Mary Washington President Troy Paino admitted that there were other faculty members who were “experts” compared to him on the policy, but he still provided his opinion on the ban.

“I personally wouldn’t see a reason why someone who needs it for self defense couldn’t avail themselves of something like [pepper spray]…to have [pepper spray] at their disposal seems to me to be reasonable and maybe a good practice,” said President Troy Paino.

According to administration, in 2015 there was an incident involving mace in Virginia Hall. During fall semester move in a pepper spray device was discharged by accident. The chemical went into the HVAC system and contaminated the residence hall. UMW police, safety and Fredericksburg police were called and resolved the situation in under two hours.

Only a few days into her new position as vice president, Landphair recalled hearing about the incident.

“That’s when I kind of learned a couple of things,” said Landphair. “I learned that we had the policy, I learned that it’s incredibly effective. Affecting in that you can see why some people call pepper spray a weapon because the impact was so severe on all of those people who rushed out of the hall.”

The incident in Virginia Hall is a leading reason in why administration is wary of pepper spray on campus.

Cedric Rucker, associate vice president & dean of student life, commented that pepper spray poses the danger of “compromising the community” as it did in the Virginia Hall incident.

It is situations like the discharge in the residence hall which prompt hesitancy by administration to allow the chemical on campus. The incident in Virginia Hall is the most recent harmful incident regarding pepper spray that law officials and campus administrators could recall.

Safety on campus

Rucker said there are a “variety of other supports” for students to use such as the blue light system. Though pepper spray is banned, Rucker emphasized that administration’s goal of student safety.

“We encourage our students to take a comprehensive approach to their safety and well-being,” said Rucker. “One of the things that we try to do is be educational both in terms of having individuals look out for one another in terms of community engagement, as well as to take the traditional safety precautions when it comes to getting around campus safely, the residence halls, and so forth.”

Other campus officials, such as Chief of Police Mike Hall, echo Rucker’s reference to other safety features of UMW.

One feature that Campus Police encourages students to take advantage of is the UMW Rave Guardian System, a smartphone app which has various features to aid students.

The app provides students emergency communication with safety officials, such as campus police or the Fredericksburg police, in case they are in an unsafe situation.

The app also provides students the opportunity to set up a guardian system. Users can make a peer or family member a guardian of them in the app, who they can message and call if they are feeling unsafe. A safety timer can also be set on the app, which allows the guardian to see how their contact is doing. If the user does not make contact with their guardian before the safety timer is up, the guardian is able to see the phone’s location and check in on the person to see if they are safe.

Could policies change?

Landphair, said the policy could change if students pushed strongly for it.

“With pepper spray, I think we would be really open to reconsidering this policy if it appeared that it was something that the students felt really passionately about and that it were accompanied by some educational aspects,” said Landphair.

A model of such an educational component is on the Virginia Commonwealth University website. Virginia Commonwealth University allows mace but bans pistols, switchblade knives, and other weapons. There is a page dedicated to the “Do’s and Don’ts of using pepper spray” and mentions how it is available to purchase in the university bookstores.

The College of William and Mary is another example of a Virginia higher educational facility that allows students to carry pepper spray. On their “Weapons, Firearms, Combustibles, and Explosives” page, the university differentiates between weapons and self-defense tools, with mace and pepper spray falling under the latter category.

If students wish for the policy to be changed, Landphair suggests they go through the Student Government Association.

“If students came to me and said ‘look, we really think we should reconsider this policy because of safety’, then the SGA is a really good place to start with that,” said Landphair. “Because the SGA president who is on the Board of Visitors could present it to the Board of Visitors, and that’s where you see change happen.”

Other potential options

Lt. Patrick Reed, a police officer of 16 years at the Fredericksburg Police Department, has mixed feelings about pepper spray as a defense tool.

“[Pepper spray] can be an good defense tool, if you’re properly trained on how to use it.” Reed said. “Because it can have a negative impact if you’re not.”

During Reed’s law enforcement experience, he has seen the negative impact pepper spray can have if used by someone who isn’t trained. The chemical can be an hazardous if discharged near a person who is asthmatic, according to Reed.

However, Reed stated that pepper spray isn’t the only defense students have and there are ways for students to defend themselves without the defense object.

“If you’re in trouble, anything you have can be a weapon,” Reed stated. “Fingernails, pin, keys. Stop and think about it.”

According to Reed, the Fredericksburg PD teaches self defense training to women and children through the Parks and Recreation Department. The course, called Rape Aggression Defense (RAD) teaches students how to defend themselves without items such as knives and mace.

According to Deputy Sheila Jones of the Fredericksburg Sheriff’s Office and long term RAD instructor, pepper spray is not encouraged or discouraged.

“We just advise students to seek training on any weapon they carry,” Jones said.

Reed said that if there was enough participation, it may be feasible to teach a class just dedicated to UMW students.

Students call for change

While administrators hold to their concerns regarding pepper spray, many students call for change regarding the policy.

Sophomore Ashleigh DiBenedetto, a survivor of sexual assault, prefers to be in control of how she can protect herself.

“I feel safer knowing I have some means to protect myself should I find that I’m in a dangerous situation again,” DiBenedetto said. “I don’t personally think the school should tell me I can’t because it’s not a private institution.”

Communications major Andrew Schneidawind agrees that it should be the student’s’ choice to carry pepper spray.

“I guess from a practical standpoint, it makes sense that mace isn’t allowed,” Schneidawind said. “But I think students should have the option of being able to [mace or pepper spray].”

Sophomore Rahima Morshed asserts that administration must take into account that dangerous situations can still happen on a small campus.

“The administration must understand that just because we are 4,400 students on campus does not mean that we will not encounter events like these,” Morshed said. “And especially for being a campus that does not have locks on the insides of academic buildings, it is important that a student, if they do wish, to carry a defense device and that the administration gives them that right.”

“This is public university and a public space,” senior Alex Sakes said. “At a historically female college I believe that the administration needs to do more to empower it’s students to feel safe, and allowing non-lethal methods of self defense is a step in the right direction.”

“Mace could be the difference between stopping a sexual assault or even death for an individual and it needs to be an option for all,” Sakes said.

A previous version of this article was called “Students and faculty question no-mace policy.” The term “mace” has since been corrected to “pepper spray” in the headline and throughout the article as “mace” refers to Mace Brand, which produces and distributes a variety of personal safety products, including pepper spray.