Homecoming bonfire saw increased security measures

by Emma Demers | 10/20/17 2:20am

by Michael Lin / The Dartmouth

This year’s Homecoming bonfire security saw a major change in security — a chainlink fence placed around the bonfire in addition to a water-filled plastic barrier and an increase in security guards.

According to interim director of Safety and Security Keysi Montás, this addition to security was catalyzed by a large increase in freshmen trying to touch the fire at last year’s Homecoming, which resulted in a portion of the fire being put out early. In 2016, an estimated 50 students tried to touch the fire, compared to three students caught doing so — although according to Safety and Security officials the number that attempted to touch the fire was likely larger — in 2014.

“Had the structure fallen down [last year], we could have had catastrophic consequences,” he said. “We tried to come up with a way that, in the event that something like that were to happen, we have a safety zone which would guarantee that there will be nobody within that area. And that’s how providing the safety zone came about.”

This year, a chainlink fence was erected 60 feet from the center of the fire, which was defined as the collapse zone.

According to Collis Center director of student involvement Anna Hall, the addition of a fence was a joint decision between Hanover Police Department and the Hanover Fire Department.

“We work with the town to ensure a safe event,” she said. “We wanted to work together to make sure what happened last year didn’t happen this year.”

Montás agreed, stating that safety is a collaborative effort between the town and the College. He said the greatest challenge during the bonfire is crowd control, because of the high volume of people, a portion of whom are running, and their proximity to a dangerous bonfire.

“We wanted to take every safety precaution that we could to guarantee that participants had a safe and enjoyable event,” he said, adding that he believes this year was one of the most successful and safe bonfires the College has seen.

Student Assembly president Ian Sullivan ’18 noted the importance of reducing the number of students who try to touch the fire.

“From a numbers perspective it was a great success in terms of the reduction in number of people that touched the fire,” Sullivan said.

According to Sullivan, the fence was a good solution to the problem.

“It would be terrible to have a tragic accident like what happened to [Texas A&M University],” he said, referencing the 12 student deaths after a bonfire collapsed at Texas A&M in 1999. “It would really sober a lot of the excitement and fun around Homecoming.”

To emphasize the importance of safety at the bonfire, Sullivan and Student Assembly vice president Matthew Ferguson ’18 sent a campus-wide email regarding bonfire safety prior to Homecoming.

“We wanted, as student leaders, to send a message reiterating that safety has to be of the utmost importance for students at homecoming,” Sullivan said.

Ferguson recognized the fact that some students were surprised by the addition of a fence to the bonfire this year.

“I think that obviously some students are bummed out to see the fence there, but I think personally I would rather have a couple of people argue about that than have someone get hurt,” he said. “It’s thousands of people yelling ‘worst class ever’ until somebody goes and does something destructive.”

Sullivan echoed this sentiment.

“I think it was obviously different with the fence being there, but I think everyone had a great time still,” Sullivan said. “And, it was overall safer.”

Ben Shapiro ’21 said that, despite the changes, he believes Homecoming was an excellent event.

“There was lots of spirit, and it was a great way to open the year for us, and I thought it was cool that the people of Hanover were there,” he said.

Shapiro added that the fence was a surprising addition and made security seem more visible to him than he thought it would be.

“I thought that because they put up the fence [Hanover Police] seemed more concentrated — I thought there were a lot [of officers],” Shapiro said. “They didn’t make me feel unsafe, and I appreciated their presence.”

Although students refer to touching the fire as a tradition at Dartmouth, Hall emphasized that touching the fire should not be considered a tradition.

“Dartmouth Night is a tradition — the bonfire is a tradition,” Hall said. “The first-year class being involved is a tradition, but touching the fire is not.”

During Dartmouth Night, which also featured a parade and a speech from College President Phil Hanlon, a group of students held a demonstration during Hanlon’s address and the bonfire. The students protested the College’s “failure to establish concrete protocol ... to protect undocumented students and staff from the threat of deportation by Immigration and Customs Enforcement,” accorded to a statement released on Oct. 10 by the Inter-Community Council.

Students also posted 500 flyers around campus before Homecoming listing demands and highlighting grievances.

The Coalition for Immigration Reform, Equality and Dreamers released a letter on Sept. 5, after President Donald Trump announced the ending of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, asking the College to take certain steps to protect undocumented students and community members. Demands included a commitment that Safety and Security and the College would not cooperate with ICE in detaining students, full financial aid for undocumented students and funds to cover legal fees. The Homecoming demonstration followed up on these demands and expressed the students’ dissatisfaction with Hanlon’s “inadequate responses,” according to the ICC statement.

In his response to the Sept. 5 letter, Hanlon wrote that the College “will do everything in [its] power, within the bounds of the law” to support affected students. Hanlon had reaffirmed the College’s support for undocumented students in a Nov. 18, 2016 campus-wide email, but did not declare the College a sanctuary campus.

“The emphasis Hanlon places on the law offers no concrete protections for undocumented students because deporting students, rescinding DACA, and reporting the status of undocumented [students] to ICE are all ‘within the bounds of the law,’” the ICC statement read.