Amid protests and police raids, US schools try to keep the peace at graduation

Amid protests and police raids, US schools try to keep the peace at graduation
Amid protests and police raids, US schools try to keep the peace at graduation

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Nevin Al Sukari - Sana'a - Students and pro-Palestinian supporters hold a rally at New York University (NYU) campus, during the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, in New York May 3, 2024. ― Reuters pic

NEW YORK, May 4 ― Ahead of the University of Michigan's commencement today, the school has trained staff volunteers in how to mitigate disruptions: a change from the usual duties of guiding guests around campus and showing them to their seats.

Everyone facilitating the University of Illinois' commencement the following weekend will have undergone similar special training. At schools like the University of Southern California and Cal Poly Humboldt in Northern California, leaders have cancelled or moved key events off campus altogether.

What are typically joyful ceremonies in which robed students cross stages to accept diplomas will have a different feel this month at many universities where pro-Palestinian protests and police crackdowns have upended the final days of the school year.


In recent days, students across the US have rallied or set up tents at dozens of universities to protest Israel's war on Gaza. Demonstrators have called on President Joe Biden, who has supported Israel, to do more to stop the bloodshed in Gaza and demanded schools divest from companies that support Israel's government.

Reuters asked 20 US colleges and universities where major protests have ensued how the demonstrations had affected commencement plans. Of the 11 that responded, only three did not expect to alter their security protocols for the event.

Some university leaders have called in riot police wielding batons and flash-bang grenades to disperse and arrest hundreds of protesters, citing a paramount need for campus safety, even as civil rights groups have decried such tactics as unnecessarily violent violations of free speech.


The anti-war protests have been staged in response to Israel's offensive in Gaza, which it launched after a Hamas attack on October 7 that Israel says killed 1,200 people. Israel has killed over 34,000 people in retaliation, according to Gaza health authorities, and flattened the Palestinian territory.

At Columbia University ― the epicentre of the student protest movement, where New York police cleared a two-week-old encampment by arresting dozens of peaceful protesters on Tuesday ― President Nemat Minouche Shafik acknowledged in a Wednesday statement that many were concerned about the university's plans for its May 15 commencement.

“We look forward to sharing more information about preparations that are underway soon,” her statement said.

Meanwhile, schools that have avoided more explosive confrontations with protesters by allowing encampments to remain on campus or agreeing to consider divestment demands are under less strain ahead of their graduation celebrations.

University of Minnesota Interim President Jeff Ettinger announced on Thursday that protesters had agreed to end their encampment in exchange for an opportunity to discuss divestment with the Board of Regents and a promise that the school will not pursue disciplinary action against them.

“The student coalition has agreed they will not organize disruptions at upcoming final exams and commencements, allowing those activities to continue as planned,” Ettinger said in a campus-wide email.

Disruption mitigation

For some schools, the additional security measures for graduation ceremonies have invited yet more controversy.

More than 300 University of Michigan faculty, staff and alumni signed a letter protesting the disruption-mitigation training for commencement volunteers from the school's Student Life department, saying staff should not be asked to quell “people trying to express free speech in a place where free speech is permitted.”

The volunteers have been trained to identify and de-escalate “problematic behaviour,” including “prolonged yelling, stomping,” “random yelling/shouts against someone or about current issues,” and “holding signs (silently) that block the view of others,” according to a copy of the training slides seen by Reuters.

The training instructed volunteers to issue two verbal warnings to hecklers, and then have public safety and security officers escort them from the event if they persist.

Anne Elias, a training manager for the university's library services, was not asked to complete the training but helped write and collect signatures for the letter protesting it.

“I have real concerns with asking any staff member to engage in any type of policing behaviour ... even gently reminding people when they are allowed to speak and how they are allowed to speak,” she said.

A spokesperson for the university said the school's aim was not to suppress free expression or peaceful protest, but rather to “limit significant disruptions, ensure safety and support a successful event worthy of the achievements of the university’s extraordinary graduates.”

USC's controversial cancellation

The University of the Southern California has gone further than any other US university surveyed by Reuters, calling off its main-stage graduation ceremony last week after cancelling the valedictorian speech by a Muslim student who said she was silenced by anti-Palestinian hatred.

Instead, graduates are invited to an evening “family graduate celebration” in the Los Angeles coliseum, featuring drone shows, fireworks, surprise performances, and the school's marching band, according to a statement USC released yesterday.

The school said in April that new safety measures this year, such as additional screening, would increase the processing time for guests “substantially.” That made it impossible to host the ceremony that typically brings 65,000 students, families and friends to the USC campus, the school said.

“They weren't very clear at any point with what the exact security concerns were,” student Jaden Ackerman said in an interview shortly after USC called off the ceremony.

William Kimber, another student, expressed sympathy for all the graduates, especially since many would have missed their high school ceremonies in 2020 due to the pandemic. He was also unconvinced by the school's rationale for cancelling the ceremony.

“We've provided a lot of funds and stuff before to protect, like, (Barack) Obama,” Kimber said, referring to the former US president. “And now they can't provide the same protection for the students? It's kind of stupid.” ― Reuters

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