Private colleges want more power to police trespassers. Here’s what you need to know.

Stanford police cars park at Palo Alto High School in 2017. The university is among the supporters of a bill giving private colleges more power to police trespassing on their campuses. Photo by LiPo Ching/Bay Area News Group

Private colleges in California want more power to rein in trespassing on their campuses, particularly when people repeatedly enter to harass students.

Willful trespassing on the campuses of California’s K-12 schools and public universities is considered a misdemeanor, and can result in jail time. But private colleges can only hand out warning letters.

The issue is at the center of a bill that is one chamber away from reaching Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. Private colleges say that the current state hampers their ability to protect students — but some students worry that the proposed changes could make campuses feel cut off from surrounding neighborhoods and lead to racial profiling.

The no-trespassing letters are ineffective because there isn’t a clear consequence for violating them, say the bill’s supporters, which include policing associations and the 86-member Association of Independent California Colleges and Universities.

During the pandemic, the association has heard instances of people entering campuses to make racist comments toward Asian American and Pacific Islander students. The association has also heard of people coming on campuses to sexually harass female students, said Alex Graves, the association’s vice president for government relations.

Still, the bill highlights a complicated dynamic. 

Many private college campuses in California are open spaces, including the Claremont Colleges and Santa Clara University, which support the bill. Community members pass through often to walk their dogs or relax on the manicured lawns. 

The open nature of campuses makes reining in trespassing “a very difficult line to walk,” said Jessica Ramey Stender, policy director and deputy legal director of Equal Rights Advocates, a gender-justice nonprofit.  

“I think it shows the difficult position that universities are in, in trying to ensure that they keep their students safe,” she said. 

Here’s what you should know about Senate Bill 748.

What changes would the bill make? 

The bill would rework a section of the state’s criminal code that right now only applies to public colleges or universities and public and private K-12 schools. 

For those schools, the law says that it’s a misdemeanor for a person to “willfully and knowingly” enter a campus after having been banned. A person can be barred for disrupting a campus or facility’s “orderly operation,” according to the law. 

The bill would expand the provision to include private colleges and universities. Punishment for a violation is either a fine of no more than $500 or imprisonment in county jail for no longer than six months, or both. 

Authored by Sen. Anthony Portantino, a San Fernando Valley Democrat, the bill passed the state Senate 34-0 in January and is scheduled to be heard by the Assembly Public Safety Committee on Wednesday.

University of San Diego (Image courtesy of USD / Instagram)

How do private campuses currently handle trespassing?

Let’s use the University of San Diego as an example. 

The university supports the bill. And, it has the kind of idyllic campus that the general public regularly visits: 180 acres overlooking San Diego, Mission Bay, and the Pacific Ocean. 

It’s fairly common for the university’s police force to be summoned to disturbances involving people who have entered campus, said James Miyashiro, assistant vice president of safety. 

A recent example involved a homeless man. He had barricaded himself in a campus bathroom, wouldn’t come out, and threatened to return again after police told him to leave, said Miyashiro, who watched footage on an officer’s body camera. 

Altercations with students also occur. People come to campus to play pick-up games and get in fights with students who have the space reserved. Or, people will make comments that offend students, who then report them to the police, Miyashiro said.

When campus police get such a report, they will ask the person to leave campus. If they continue to come back, officers will give them a letter barring them from campus. 

But “that doesn’t have a lot of teeth behind it,” Miyashiro said. And, city police are reluctant to respond to trespassing issues on campus, particularly during hours when the buildings are open, he said. 

Miyashiro contrasted the dynamic with his experience at two public universities where he previously worked: the University of California, Los Angeles and Riverside Community College District. There, campus police could tell a person causing a disturbance that if they returned within seven days, they could be arrested. 

Several city police associations back the bill, including the Riverside Sheriff’s Association and the Santa Ana Police Officers Association.

Equal Rights Advocates also decided to support the measure, Stender said, based on what it has heard from students who are victims of sexual assault or harrassment. Sometimes, the attacker will return to campus to continue harassing or even assault them again, she said.

The consequence of a misdemeanor charge brings clarity, said John Ojeisekhoba, the president-elect of a campus-policing association that supports the bill. 

“It will give an officer a significant level of deterrence. That will be the difference. Right now, there’s just no such thing, ” he said. 

Could this bill lead to racial profiling? 

Several students said they are concerned about this outcome. 

Alessia Milstein, who graduated this spring from Pitzer College, said there should be other options for how people get help instead of defaulting to calling the police. Milstein was involved in the Claremont Colleges’ Prison Abolition Collective, a club that educates students about prison and police abolition.

Alessia Milstein graduated this spring from Pitzer College, in Claremont. She was involved in abolition activism on campus. May 25, 2022. Photo by Raquel Natalicchio for CalMatters

It’s also important to remember that everyone is subject to having racial biases — and relying on police to decide who belongs on campus is “allowing those to run freely,” she said. 

“I just feel like it’s kind of the epitome, again, of why police don’t work,” Milstein said. “You’re trying to solve every conflict with a catchall that is rooted in colonialism and white supremacy.” 

There are “more negatives than positives” with the bill, said Tess Gibbs, a rising senior at Scripps College, who is also part of the collective.

Specifically, Gibbs said she worries the bill could make campus into a sort of “fortress,” cut off from the surrounding community.

“I just question how much this would actually significantly increase safety of students, which seems to be its intention,” Gibbs said. 

A movement to reduce police presence on California campuses has grown over the last several years, following a nationwide reckoning over the scope of police power. 

At the University of California and California State University, some students have called for abolishing or increasing oversight of campus police departments, particularly because of concerns over aggressive policing of protests and racial profiling.

And, racism regularly leads to people of color being deemed suspicious. One such incident that garnered national attention: In 2018, a white student at Yale University called campus police after seeing a black student asleep in the dorm common room. Several police officers responded to the incident.

“We have to make sure it’s applied in a way that makes sense,” Portantino said of the bill. 

When asked via email about concerns that the bill could lead to racial profiling or harassment of homeless people, he said that the measure isn’t meant to be used for anything other than “fostering prudent student and campus safety.”

How could campus police avoid over-policing, if the bill becomes law? 

Several campus safety officials interviewed said they intended to use the bill’s power just as needed, rather than overdo it. Of course, that’s easier said than done. 

Ojeisekhoba, of the International Association of Campus Law Enforcement Administrators, acknowledged that mistakes can happen. Still, he said he has seen a shift in how campus police respond to reports of suspicious behavior. As an example, he pointed to the private university where he is chief of police, Biola University in La Mirada. 

Instead of immediately sending an officer to the scene after getting a call about suspicious behavior, dispatchers are trained to ask more questions in the hopes of figuring out if there is actually an issue. The approach is meant to “reduce potential mistakes or the appearance of racial profiling,” he said. 

Stan Skipworth, associate vice president of campus safety at the Claremont Colleges, also said in an email that jail time isn’t necessary in all instances of trespassing — just the most egregious cases. 

Instead of relying on police, students should learn to count on community members when problems arise, said Alaia Zaki, a rising senior at the University of San Francisco. Zaki is part of the university’s chapter of Alliance for Change, an organization that helps people transition from prison and re-enter communities.

Zaki highlighted pod-mapping as potential inspiration. The approach has been championed by the Bay Area Transformative Justice Collective, an Oakland-based group.

Pods are meant to be a way to deal with small harms by relying on a group of trusted friends or neighbors. For example, instead of calling the police, a person could reach out to their pod. 

“To have a relationship founded on community would be kind of a game-changer because you would have people that you know, and hopefully respect and trust, coming to de-escalate your situations,” Zaki said. 

Lingappa is a fellow with the CalMatters College Journalism Network, a collaboration between CalMatters and student journalists from across California. This story and other higher education coverage are supported by the College Futures Foundation.

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