By Brian Ponte
For the past two days, students with disabilities and their able-bodied allies have occupied the library in protest of Purchase’s policies surrounding the emergency evacuation of disabled students.
“An emergency doesn’t wait for you to figure out if it’s dangerous, an emergency just happens,” said Sonya Rio-Glick, a disabled student who has spearheaded the calls for change on campus. “I am hoping to achieve immediate, automatic evacuation regardless of whether it is an emergency or not, because the current protocol that is not being advertised is that responding UPD have to determine if it is an emergency before they start to evacuate us.”
Under the college’s current evacuation policy, students who require assistance are required to go to designated “Areas of Refuge,” equipped with sprinkler systems, fire rated doors and “other safety mechanisms,” and await evacuation via trained and certified emergency responders. The protesters argue that this policy places them in danger, and that they have never gone through the evacuation procedures during any of this semester’s fire drills.
“It would be good to actually run through the evacuation procedure because nobody has actually run through a procedure with us,” said Nicholas Astor, who faced his own problems with accessibility at Purchase earlier this year. “There’s a lot of anxiety when a system and a school that is supposed to nurture and protect you so that you can learn well clearly doesn’t care about your safety.”
The protesters are also calling for a revision of the Areas of Refuge, as Rio-Glick said that some disabled students might be unable to access these areas during an emergency.
“A fire-safe door is not going to protect me if there is an active shooter or a domestic dispute,” Rio-Glick said. “I would require being carried in the case of being evacuated, and I’ve requested practicing that procedure with responding personnel. They’ve told me they were taking steps to make that happen, but that was on Oct. 22, and there’s no schedule or plan for that so right now it’s all lip service.”
In response to the criticism, Chief Diversity Officer Jerima DeWese recently sent out a campus-wide email promising a “revised comprehensive policy within the next few weeks.” The protesters feel that the email did not address their concerns and criticized the response’s “vague wording.”
“What does the ‘next few weeks’ mean what is a ‘comprehensive procedure?’” said Rio-Glick. “If you don’t define any of that, you’re not accountable for any of it. I’ve been told that since the end of September, and it is Oct. 30. Every day that passes that we don’t have automatic immediate response assurance our lives are in danger.”
Rio-Glick said that a recent phone call from DeWese did little to quell her concerns.
“She said ‘I think that’s your anxiety talking,’” Rio-Glick said. “The fact that she gaslighted me about having a little bit of anxiety is absolutely unacceptable.”
In response, DeWese claimed to have had no prior knowledge of Rio-Glick having any mental health issues.
“Sonya expressed that she becomes anxious about getting to and remaining in the Area of Refuge to wait to be evacuated,” DeWese said. “I expressed that I understood her being anxious but informed her that the Area of Refuge was the safest place for her to be in while waiting for Emergency Responders to evacuate her. I do not know of or have any knowledge of Sonya having mental health issues to reference.”
DeWese recommended that any student who feels “unsafe or unwelcome” at Purchase should report it to “Residence Hall staff, the Office of Community Engagement, the University Police Department,” as well as her own office.
The protesters have found the college’s response to be inadequate with no concrete plan to replace the existing evacuation procedures. Disabled students and allies alike have found the entire ordeal to be draining.
“Something I just want to highlight is how traumatizing it can be to suddenly be in an environment where you don’t know if your life is at risk or not, but you know that you’re not getting the help that you have been promised,” said Aviva Frank, a Sociology and Gender Studies double major and close friend of Rio-Glick. “It makes you feel trapped, and it makes you feel helpless and it makes you feel terrified. That is not something anyone deserves to feel, particularly in a school that prides itself on being so open and accommodating.”