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USF protesters want to beef up campus police
They question student affairs office issues.
By SHANNON COLAVECCHIO-VAN SICKLER, Times Staff Writer
Published October 17, 2007
Students conduct a sit-in at the campus administration building Tuesday. They gathered to protest the handling of recent accusations against top student affairs administrator Jennifer Meningall, as well as university police funding.
[Ross Mantle | Times]
[Ross Mantle | Times]
"Students on our campus do not feel safe," said student body vice president Faran Abbasi, adding that students should not be punished for raising concerns. After his speech, he led a sit-in at the administration building.
TAMPA -- More than 60 students staged a sit-in outside the University of South Florida's administrative offices Tuesday, demanding president Judy Genshaft and other USF officials put more money into the thin-ranked campus Police Department.
They also insisted administrators "hold accountable" head of student affairs Jennifer Meningall by more thoroughly investigating allegations she intimidated her employees, improperly hired friends for positions in her office and misspent tens of thousands of dollars that could have been used to expand the police force.
Moreover, student leaders want USF to reinstate James Dragna, the student affairs administrator who says Meningall ousted him this summer after he went to Genshaft's office with his allegations.
"Students on our campus do not feel safe," said student body vice president Faran Abbasi. "Our university is not even equipped to handle even regular campus activities, much less a Virginia Tech-type event. And people at this university should not be punished for raising their concerns."
Abbasi said student government leaders tried in recent weeks to resolve their concerns quietly with USF administrators, including Genshaft and Meningall, to no avail. Moreover, discussions with student affairs employees "afraid for their jobs" led Abbasi and student body president Garrin Flowers to conclude that Meningall has created a "culture of fear" in her department, Abbasi said.
Meningall was in meetings throughout the afternoon and was not available for comment, but she has denied any wrongdoing.
Tuesday's peaceful protest came two weeks after outgoing student affairs senior vice president James Dragna sent dozens of USF colleagues, including Genshaft, an e-mail outlining allegations of misspending and employee mistreatment by Meningall, who oversees 18 USF departments and organizations, including USF police.
The protest also follows a series of memos, dating back to last year, in which police Chief Thomas Longo laid out his worries for the safety of USF students in Tampa.
"The UP is currently understaffed to a level that gives serious rise to concern on my part for the safety of the campus community, and our officers on patrol," Longo wrote Nov. 6. He went on to say he doesn't have enough funded positions in his budget, nor can he pay officers enough to keep them.
In a Nov. 28 memo to Genshaft, Longo said he must pay officers overtime just to keep the bare minimum of four officers on duty each shift.
USF has 49 school-funded positions and four grant-funded positions, said Lt. Meg Ross. But 13 positions are vacant because USF struggles to recruit and retain qualified officers. Turnover since 2000 has been a crippling 42 percent, she said.
"We've been at between 38 and 40 officers for awhile," Ross said. "As soon as we get one in the front door, another goes out the back."
USF has one officer for every 963 students. The University of Central Florida, by comparison, has about 60 officers -- one for every 731 students.
Reported crimes at USF did drop by nearly 11 percent between 2005 and 2006, the latest statistics available. But much of the decline came in property-type and less-violent crimes like motor vehicle theft and burglary, records show. USF had one murder in 2006, but none the previous year. Aggravated assaults dropped from 15 reported cases to four, but the number of rape, robbery and assault cases went up.
Longo has proposed a pay plan that would guarantee officers higher salaries every few years, and it would cost USF more than $830,000, not including benefits. USF officials are currently negotiating officers' new contracts.
"No one gets everything they want, and we're still working on that," USF spokesman Ken Gullette said Tuesday, standing outside his second-floor office as students sat in the courtyard below. "Any time students care enough about an issue to make a demonstration like this, it's a serious matter. We take it very seriously."
Yet in August, Meningall's business director, Fairfax Vickers, sent a memo to the organizations under student affairs, informing them that student affairs will begin taking 2 percent of their annual budgets.
The memo does not make clear where the more than $700,000 in assessments is going, though Vickers states in the memo to Longo that the plan is to "utilize a large part of these assessments ... to strengthen your operations."
The memo offers no solid numbers on how much money the Police Department might get.
"There needs to be more accountability," said sit-in participant Mark Vila, 22, a premed student from Miami. "We're talking about a lot of money."