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On-campus weapons policy identifies pepper spray as a ‘non-weapon weapon’

Pepper spray hangs from a student’s keychain in the Shaw Student Center at Westminster College on March 5. The pepper spray is technically against the campus weapons policy, but Westminster Chief Student Affairs Office Mark Ferne said that guideline would not be enforced against students carrying it for self defense. (Photo by Berin Klawiter)

Carrying a cell phone pre-dialed to 911, pepper spray or a rape whistle can make someone alone on campus feel safer, but that doesn’t guarantee an attack won’t happen. Still, many students on college campuses take precautions, just in case.

It’s no different at Westminster College, where pepper spray hangs from some students’ backpacks, purses and persons — a reality that seems at odds with the college’s Student Handbook, which prohibits weapons, including pepper spray.

“We have struggled, as you can imagine, with how inclusive — or I should say how exhaustive — we need to say that we are limited to or not limited to [in} the weapons policy,” said Mark Ferne, Westminster’s chief student affairs officer. “We would treat pepper spray differently if suddenly people were having pepper spray around as a threatening behavior.”

The campus weapons policy also bans “the possession, use, or display of weapons” like firearms, BB guns, knives, hatches, swords and “non-weapon objects to be used for causing harm.” The policy encourages students to immediately report violations and notes that the “failure to abide by this policy may result in disciplinary action.”

But referencing pepper spray as a “non-weapon weapon,” Ferne said a student carrying pepper spray and acting in a threatening way would be addressed differently from students who are carrying it for self defense.

However, there are discrepancies in the language on policy pages throughout the college’s website — leading some to question why the college would include pepper spray as a weapon and raising concerns that prohibiting it in the Student Handbook may deter some students from carrying it.

Alyssa Mellmer, a sophomore biology major, carries pepper spray in her car parked on campus grounds.

“I have it because when it’s dark outside and late, the school has a couple safety officers but not a lot of campus safety,” Mellmer said. “It would be super easy to get stuck in a place where you wouldn’t be able to protect yourself.”

Brittany Gordon, a senior neuroscience major, also keeps pepper spray in her car but said she doesn’t carry it around during the day because she feels safe at Westminster. However, she noted that she doesn’t believe the college should view it as a weapon for those who do carry it around on campus.

“It can’t kill anyone,” she said. “It’s not a weapon; it’s for self defense. I wouldn’t be threatened by it being carried on campus.”

Ahmad Dabbas, a junior communication major, doesn’t carry pepper spray but said he thinks it’s a good thing for students to carry, and he agreed with Gordon and Mellmer that the college should rethink its policy.

“Unless they have a better alternative for students to protect themselves alone at night,” Mellmer said.

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A fourth-year student at Westminster College, Bailey was crowned Miss Nevada in 2016 and represented her state at the Miss America Competition on ABC. Using the scholarship provided by Miss America, Bailey is funding her educational goal to obtain a communication degree with the hope of working in entertainment or governmental affairs.

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