by Wesley Baucom, opinions editor
The Recreation and Wellness Center is one of the University of Missouri–St. Louis’ shining features. From its sleek, chromatic stature to its vast amenities, it not only looks nice, but it embodies some of the best things UMSL has to offer. Due to a large amount of support from a student referendum back in 2011, it was decided that the Rec Center would be built. It took two years to build, starting in 2013 and finishing in the fall of 2015. This impressive building was built with students in mind, with student money from tuition, and with student input in every part of the process. If you haven’t visited the place, you’re missing out. In the three floors, you have a huge pool, a track with two different lengths, a massive basketball court and more workout machines than Santa could ever fit in his bag. This is only some of what the Rec Center has to offer. However, within the first few weeks of the semester crime has visited this place that a lot of people have come to love.
On Sunday, Jan. 26, a Clery alert went out warning that a weapon was flourished on the Rec center grounds. A full report couldn’t be found (we’ll get to this), but the incident is pretty clear cut. It took place on the glossy basketball court floors, and during a heated game the perpetrator flashed a weapon from inside his bag. Following this, the other players reacted intensely—shouting at him to put it away and warning everyone around them. At this point the armed and gutless person quickly fled the scene before anyone could catch him. The Rec Center staff were informed, and Campus PD came to the scene, and at that moment everyone’s phone buzzed with the Clery alert.
This is something deeply urgent for UMSL. Even though bringing a gun isn’t anything new to American schools, it’s still completely unacceptable. This threatens the safety of everyone at UMSL, and if anyone can bring a weapon to the school it sets a bad precedent for the future. What caused this? Where is it coming from? Why was this allowed to happen? For more information, I made my way past the busy parking lot of the Millennium Student Center, and straight for the UMSL PD station. When I was waiting in the lobby, I could see the whirring Metrolink train passing by carrying both people from UMSL and from all around the region.
At first, I was turned away. During my first attempt to reach someone, I waited for about 20 minutes as the receptionist behind the security glass eyed me suspiciously, and people came and went to her after I asked for information. Then, I was greeted by an overly friendly police woman, and was told the detective “just went out.” I made an appointment further in the week, and had to come back then.
A few days went by and my wait in the lobby was cut in half to about 10 minutes. Then I was greeted warmly by Lieutenant Cedric Carr. He led me to a grey and silent interrogation room. He gestured and had me sit by the door, while he sat back by the wall—switching the usual roles of interrogator and information giver. At the same time however, there was this rising feeling like I was the one being interrogated, just from the way he seemed to eyeball even my slightest gestures or even the way I positioned my hands. I went on with the questions. What happened that day?
Lt. Carr stressed that: “These people are not affiliated with UMSL.” He stressed it so much in fact, that after listening back to the recording, I heard more than three times, even when I didn’t even prompt him. “Based on the leads and information we received, we hopped on it immediately. Somebody recognized him. So we looked in the computer, he checked in at a certain time, then we got his picture and got all his information. We gave him a phone call, talked to him, booked him right away, and handed it over to the prosecuting attorney.” So, case closed, right? Not quite. The person who caused the incident really wasn’t affiliated with UMSL, they were an area resident.
Lt. Carr continued: “The suspect was part of a pilot program at the Rec Center. What they’re doing is letting kids come in, enjoy the benefits of the gym for thirty days. If they like the gym then they’ll try and get a membership.” This seemed strange to me—my budding journalist instincts began to spark as my wheels were churning, and I had to wonder—isn’t the Rec Center for UMSL only? If the Rec Center was paid for using student tuition and other school funds, wouldn’t that make it something strictly for school use? That’s not to say that anyone couldn’t bring guests, but I’d hope that a student or anyone else who was actually affiliated with UMSL would be smart enough not to carry a weapon on campus. In my mind, I knew that UMSL registration and overall enrollment was down. My suspicion was that the Rec Center had difficulty sustaining itself, thus creating a need for outside funds. So of course, the root of this had to be money. It just had to be.
This is where I left Lt. Carr. On the way out, still mystified at the realization, I asked him about obtaining a police report. He looked hesitant, giving one of those long “Aaahhs,” as if that was territory with a clear boundary line, even though UMSL PD’s policy is obliged to give out written records to students and faculty when asked. He ended up giving me a name and contact information, and I even followed up on this and contacted Normandy PD and the prosecutor for the case, but no one got back to me.
However convoluted this trail seemed, I was determined to see it through. So I followed it and went straight for the source: the Rec Center directors. I scheduled an appointment with them and we met up at the Rec Center on a chilly Friday morning. After a brief wait, Emily, the co-director, met me in the store and led me to a stark white meeting room where I met Yvette, the director in chief, and we all got to talking. They both worked at other facilities in the past, Emily even worked at Harvard for a time, and they looked over the center since its inception. “It was great to come on board and create a new department,” Yvette said, “and everything from a policy and procedure stand-point.”
What was really on my mind, however, was this “Pilot Program” that Lt. Carr informed me about. Emily was the first to answer: “Every January we do what’s called a ‘Resolution Jumpstart Promotion.’ This is the fourth year we’ve done it. It opens up our facility to allow community members to come in and test the facility before they purchase a membership. This is also the first month we had severe issues with it, so we are re-thinking what we’re doing with the program next year.” It was also revealed that the program was immediately cancelled following the incident.
So, where does this re-thinking lead them? “We still accept new members, obviously, we’re not going to shut down membership sales. We’re thinking of making it less of a free-for-all, instead new members would come in with someone else,” Emily said.
Let’s be frank here for a moment. I could go into the “inclusion of the community” rhetoric that the directors wholeheartedly believe in and told me about at length, but that desire has to be balanced with student safety. I mean, everyone gets those clery alerts warning everyone about a crime that goes down.
Also, it’s my understanding that the Rec Center was and still is paid for using student tuition. Is it really low enrollment causing all this? “I would say it’s a factor.” Yvette says. “It’s something that doesn’t affect our daily operations, just yet, but we’ve been extremely diligent about making sure we’re being fiscally responsible.” It seems like things are stable for the time being, but with the continual downward trend of enrollment, that could rock the boat even more.
It’s important to mention that the Rec Center employees did everything they could in the situation. All that they were trained to do in the case of an emergency was handled promptly and professionally. The fault isn’t on them. As for what the Rec Center is doing to prevent the possibility of future danger, Emily had this to say: “It’s never going to be one-hundred percent preventable. There are people out there that have weapons.” Nonetheless, the Rec Center is still equipped to deal with danger, but if only that danger was preventable. Then again, while I was sitting there, staring at the erasable graffiti on the whiteboards, I had to wonder: where are all the students in all this?
It was just my luck that Joe Methner, features-editor for The Current, is also the SGA spokesperson on the Rec Center council. So we met in one of The Current’s own offices and talked about how much say students have on a building we pay for. “We talk about different promotional things they’re doing,” Joe says. So it looks like the council is strictly a promotional one. How much does he know about the memberships? “I’m not one-hundred percent familiar with it. It’s something they’ve done to promote memberships.” And what about the policy regarding the future of the program? After all, student lives were endangered when this happened. “The only thing we really talked about was that they immediately shut down the program, but we didn’t talk about the future of it though. I’m not really sure if they plan on bringing that back next year, or if they’ll fully shut it down.” Interesting, so what does the council know about money, and if the Rec Center can support itself? “I’m not sure on that. We haven’t really talked about it.”
This is a damning case. Though it’s not on Joe—he’s a good guy. What the issue really is here, is that even if students voted on it, helped plan it, and even have some advisory role, students have virtually no sway on things that really matter. I think this bad promotional gig might have ended up biting everyone in the ass. Money shouldn’t get in the way of student safety. There’s a simple solution though.
Give students a larger voice. The way in which they go about their ideas makes it look like only a small number of people come up with ways to support the Rec Center. The thing is, if students were given a larger role, that means more ideas are put on the table. Even if they don’t have any previous experience in gym operations, student voices have always been a part of the Rec Center, and maybe that’s what makes it so great in the first place. Students and other UMSL-goers have made this Rec Center a reality, and they deserve better representation in a way that matters.
All in all, the Rec Center is still a great facility, and it’s operators are well trained and have a lot of experience in what they do. Maybe this whole incident was just a fluke, a one in a million chance sort of thing. Even if this were the case, as it stands, students deserve a larger role in the scheme of things. This is our safety, our lives, our education, and our school. Until we all can come together as one whole unit, faculty, staff, students, amongst others, UMSL will always be at risk of being completely blindsided by the unpredictable. So keep working it out, mile by mile, inch by inch, rep by rep—and hopefully we’ll make this school a better place.