President and chancellor will explore alternatives to pilot area, Vela says.
By Kyle R. Cotton
After years of handling loitering smokers solo, the Methodist Student Center recently got campus police, the college president and the district chancellor in its corner.
The center has been dealing with smokers’ corner since this college implemented its non-smoking policy in 2005.
Center leaders say they have had little help from this college in dealing with the smokers who gather near the building at Belknap and Dewey.
However, in the last few months, smokers’ corner has emerged as a burning issue, with the Student Government Association, the Human Services Club and President Robert Vela all trying to help with the situation or find a possible solution.
Vela brought the concerns over smokers’ corner to Chancellor Bruce Leslie March 30 to try and pilot a designated smoking area along Dewey Place.
According to Vela, the pilot area is still up for discussion; however, they want to try alternatives first.
“We’re going to try some things before we do anything,” Vela said. “We don’t want to send the wrong message to our students.”
“We’re going to look at other universities to see how they handle smokers, educate our students on the dangers of smoking, reach out to our neighbors to see if they have any issues and take a more proactive approach,” Vela said. “We can’t lift the policy for just one college because it affects all five colleges.”
SGA and the Human Services Club hosted a mediation session March 27 between campus police and the Methodist Student Center.
Chris Lopez, SGA commissioner, Human Services Club president and human services freshman, was the mediator.
“Smokers’ corner has been an issue I’ve been working with for a while, and through that I found out about a past unpleasant experience,” Lopez said. “I thought it would be a great idea to start a new relationship between our great neighbors so they could understand each other’s roles and concerns.”
The unpleasant experience between the two groups involved two separate incidents where police officers from this college came into the center and yelled at the center’s leadership, who had called police to help disperse the smokers on their property.
According to Brenda Meneses, administrative assistant at the center, the officers told them to stop harassing the smokers. Methodist leaders also have said they have seen some officers smoking on the corner.
Meneses said the goal of the mediation was to help reestablish a relationship — which hadn’t been there for at least five years — between this college’s police and the Methodist Student Center.
Meneses said the center had felt isolated from the campus since the incidents.
“We have tried everything from talking to students, coffee every morning to help alleviate some of the smoking with just the coffee,” Meneses said.
Other methods included playing loud music and talking to former President Robert Zeigler, but none of them went anywhere.
“We did feel left alone with it even though the problem used to be SAC’s,” Meneses said. “Once they went smoke-free, those same problems became ours.”
Deputy Chief Joe Pabon was the campus police’s representative at the mediation.
“He was there to listen first to see what was the reason (for the lack of relationship between police and Methodist leadership) and to get to meet us since we hadn’t done that since he came on board,” Meneses said. “I did enjoy meeting with him; I believe he is sincere, and we will now have good communication with them.”
Pabon said the meeting went well.
“They told us some of their concerns and I feel we will have a better relationship going forward,” Pabon said.
He said he was unaware of these incidents and had no knowledge campus police had used to smoke there.
“I’ve only been here for a little over two years so I didn’t know about these incidents,” Pabon said.
According to Pabon, he doesn’t know of any officers right now who smoke with students on the corner. He does know of a non-smoking officer who regularly talks to them.
Meneses said their concerns are finally being listened to.
“Every semester is different — students and faculty change — but it does seem like we are much closer to a resolution,” Meneses said. “Before it did feel like just us … but we finally feel like we’re close.”
Meneses said, “(Pabon) has assured us that they are going to try and educate the students, because whatever Dr. Vela is going to do will take time.”
On the possibility of a pilot area, Meneses said students would benefit from it.
“Students can smoke without being harassed, without being asked to move and have a comfortable place,” Meneses said.
“This is a community college; it’s not going to be smoke free,” Meneses said. “Each campus is different, and we need to look at SAC at a different level and address its individual problems.”