Arson sparks controversy in Jeanne Mance

Police have not yet identified a suspected arsonist who set fire to a poster in the second floor hallway of Jeanne Mance residence hall on Friday, Feb. 22, according to a UVM police report. UVM Sophomore Coco Zephir lives in the dorm room adjacent to where the fire took place. Zephir said that her friend who was visiting the school that weekend was returning to the room after he had left to get a glass of water when he saw the fire and extinguished it.”Up until this point I have never really thought about fire in the dorms or any sort of immature dangerous acts,” Zephir said. “What if my friend had not gone out there? It’s a little frightening to think that in a close community like Jeanne Mance things like this could happen,” Zephir said.The act of arson was accompanied by a derogatory insult written in black marker outside the apartment of Assistant Residence Director Hannah Roberts, which is located on the first floor of the building, Roberts said. There had been documentation earlier that night of illegal activities that some students were particularly upset about, Roberts said.After the documentation, Officer Christina Coyer warned her she was “99 percent certain” there would be an act of graffiti that night, Roberts said.Roberts said Officer Coyer then offered to have a police officer present in the building throughout the night.”It was my call to say ‘no’ and then, indeed, there was [an act of graffiti]. I have to live with that,” Roberts said.”It’s hard for me to know that we could have been a little safer and I made the call not to because I don’t want the police here. The police can create an uneasy tension and I don’t want the students to live with that.”But at the same time, I’ve got other students coming to me and saying, ‘I feel much safer with the police here’ and ‘thank you for having them here,'” she said.The Writing on the Wall UVM Police Chief Gary Margolis said that on Saturday, Feb. 23, hateful messages written in black marker towards police were found on the walls and in the kitchens and bathrooms of multiple floors in the building between the hours of one and two in the morning.Roberts said that she could understand some students being frustrated with the police presence, however the acts of vandalism that occurred on Saturday night were unacceptable. “I think the students have a right to their anger, they have a lot of right; but the amount of hate speech that was all over our building that the residents are now cleaning off of our walls,” Roberts said “That is not activism. That is aggression.”Roberts had spoken with police earlier Saturday morning about their plan of action for that night.”I had told them I wanted their presence in the building because of a serious case of arson, that’s a serious safety concern. So we asked them to be here throughout the night on Saturday and I think they had been doing walk-throughs about every hour.”Alex Kormos, a sophomore who lives on the second floor, said she noticed the graffiti around 1:30 a.m. after she had just been outside to get water about two minutes earlier”We had RA’s walking the floors so whoever did it obviously went out of their way to really get there and get it on the wall,” Kormos said.”I was really outraged. It’s hard to see that kind of stuff happening in your community,” Kormos said. “You would expect to be able to see at least someone running away from the site.”Sophomore Aaron Backer, who lives on the third floor of the building, said the police came knocking on every door on his side of the third floor hallway after discovering the graffiti.”They came into my room at two in the morning, knocked on the door, and pointed to my friend Tony.” Backer said, “They took off his jacket, patted him down, and then told him: ‘You’re good, go back in.'”Roberts said she was not present for the entire investigation on Saturday night, but has heard some students’ allegations of illegal searches that night after the graffiti was discovered.”I think there are certain incidents where students have felt targeted or unfairly searched,” Roberts said. Derick McGiveny, a freshman from the third floor, says he was questioned by the police on both Friday and Saturday night. “Ever since [semester] break, weekends got more and more intense and more and more incidents happened,” McGiveny said.”Things got out of context and now peoples’ names are being thrown around. They told us they are watching our side of the hall, the cops and Hannah,” he said.Police Presence Roughly two weeks before the weekend of vandalism, Roberts and police officers met with residents on every floor of the building to discuss the increased use of drugs and alcohol and increased vandalism, Roberts said. “I think that was a really proactive meeting on our part to say that we know what’s going on, we’re concerned, and to clarify policy,” Roberts said. “We made it very clear that the police probably wouldn’t be going away until the behavior stopped, and so I think the students were unhappy in general about the police presence,” she said.UVM Police Chief Gary Margolis said his main focus is to help the students in need. “The reason the police exist in society is to provide services when people are in need, and unfortunately, there’s been a need in Jeanne Mance,” Margolis said.”Every residence hall is cyclical in that regard. Sometimes in different times, in different years, in different halls: there are different problems.”I’m not saying it’s a waste of our time or that it’s a good use of our time. It’s our time, that’s what we do; we’re here to help,” he said.Critical Incident MeetingOn the Saturday morning before the second incident of vandalism occurred, Roberts said a decision was made between her and Christina Olstad, an assistant director for Residential Life to call a “critical incident meeting” to be held on Sunday at 10 p.m. in the Jeanne Mance recreation room. Roberts said the meeting was an open forum with 95 percent of the 150 students in the building in attendance.”I think the meeting went pretty much as well as it could have gone,” said Roberts. “The only way it could have gotten better is if someone had taken responsibility.”