Internal Tumult Rocks the Security Departmentby Elizabeth Heron (3/10/00 and 3/17/00)
The Security Department is not so secure these days, due to internal disputes between labor and management.
Director of Security Keith James' stint as the head of the department has been plagued by numerous staff complaints and security union grievances against him, as well as staff resignations.
"When you see a department start to crumble internally because of piss-poor management that they're forced to work under, it's ridiculous," said Scott Collins, maintenance employee of the College, who has a brother on the Security staff.
The most recent complaint against James concerned an incident on Feb. 22 in the Security building. A student became irate after learning that his car had been towed due to too many unpaid parking tickets. Upon learning he would be unable to have his car returned, the student pulled a fire alarm in James' office. James called the Oberlin Police Department to report the student's unruly behavior, but the student left after seeing a squad car pull up to the building. No charges were filed.
Staff members who wished to remain anonymous believed that the situation could have been avoided if James had exhibited different behavior toward the student. They reported that the student was unable to talk to James alone, and that after the fire alarm was pulled, James locked himself in his office while calling the police, putting the officer and dispatcher at risk of attack from the angry student.
James told a different version of events. "I never deliberately locked the door. My door naturally locks after it has been closed," James said. He reported that the student was unable to speak to him alone because he was in a meeting with Assistant Director of Security Marjorie Burton at the time, and offered to schedule an appointment with the student for a later date. The student then became enraged, pulled the fire alarm, and when exiting James' office, automatically locked the office door. "You get into these debates. Some are pleasant, some are not," James said. "When you are not familiar with the [parking] regulations, you become a victim of the enforcement process." In response to a planned unsafe work environment grievance to be filed with the Oberlin College Security Association union, James said, "It's very easy after making a decision to go back and question yourself. The important thing is that the situation was resolved."
Although this particular incident seemed to have been resolved satisfactorily with the student, James has had a history of grievances filed against him by Security staff members through the security union. "As far as I can remember, we had two grievances filed prior to Keith James and Marj Burton. Since then, I've lost count," said Christine Groff, President of the union. "He [James] continually and blatantly violates the contract," said Groff, referring to the standard union contract filed with the National Labor Relations Board that regulates hiring practices, scheduling, and unfair labor practices.
Union members are also upset by the way grievances have been handled by James and the College. "We're all just very tired of the grievance process," said Groff. Grievances are first filed verbally, then a meeting with James is supposed to be scheduled within five days. Yet according to Groff, James often does not respond within the accorded time. "He doesn't respond in a timely manner, or sometimes not at all," said Groff. James responded that, "Sometimes I cannot respond in five days because I am off campus. There are a whole bunch of reasons."
The next step in the grievance process is a meeting with Director of Human Resources Ruth Spencer. Spencer defended James, saying, "He has responded to many of their grievances. Sometimes they have not responded to his inquiries. This might be a situation where they are just not communicating."
The tension in the security department has led to situations that have gone beyond the normal grievance procedure. On Jan. 19, Office Manager Laura Policz filed a theft report with the Oberlin Police Department after she saw photocopies of her personal diary on Burton's desk. The diary was a log of Policz's daily activities on the job, including documentation of any and all incidents, including job harassment that occurred during her employment. Copies were made without Policz's knowledge. Burton stated that she assumed the documents were part of a work related task list which was supposed to be accessible to herself and James. After reviewing the matter, the police determined that the allegations could not be substantiated, and no further action was taken.
Some members of the security staff also feel that James has implemented unfair hiring practices. Several senior officers were passed over for promotions in favor of officers with less seniority. One officer, Angel Yost, resigned her post because "officers hired within the last 11 months have been given preference over me, a senior officer." In a letter to President Nancy Dye, Yost said that "My situation as an employee changed drastically with the coming of a new Director of Security," citing unannounced scheduling changes, neglect of her position as a Community Service/Crime Prevention officer, and abuse of confidentiality.
The administration stated that they are aware of the situation. "This office is intervening about an appropriate solution and is in discussions with the Dean of Students on this issue," said Spencer.
Both Dye and Dean of Students Peter Goldsmith were reluctant to comment. "I don't talk about personnel matters," said Dye. Goldsmith concurred, saying, "It's not possible for me to comment on personnel matters."
"If you get too many judgements against the school, I don't see how the school can survive. Hopefully it won't get to that point. Hopefully somebody will step in," said Collins.
Copyright © 2000, The Oberlin Review.
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