The University of Richmond updated its fire safety policy after repeated damage and vandalisms to exit signs posed threats to student safety, said Patrick Benner, director of Residence Life and Housing.
Benner notified the student body about the policy update through messages included in the SpiderBytes emails for Jan. 14 and Jan. 15.
“A student who is found to be involved in the tampering/vandalizing the emergency and/or exit signs in residential areas may be subject to the following: First Violation: University Housing Probation for a minimum of one full year, Restitution for damages, and 25 hours of Community Service; Second Violation: Immediate Housing Eviction and may be suspended from the University,” the Spiderbyte stated.
Tampering with or vandalizing an exit sign is now a Category D violation – a more severe class that includes the intentional setting of fires – and is subject to higher penalties, Benner said.
"We know the severity of it because it's a safety matter and I just don't know that students understand the gravity of how much they're connected to safety," he said.
Benner said the biggest issue was that when students tampered with exit signs, they could put other students' safety at risk. The policy was evaluated in a way to help students understand the level of need for exit signs to be in buildings, he added.
"We had an incident last semester where there was a smoke bomb that went off on a floor, and it happened to be on a floor where an exit sign had been removed a day or two before," Benner said. "When students were trying to evacuate the building, they couldn't see which way the exit was. That was a major concern."
Benner said he had started conversations with UR’s Office of Risk Management, as well as with Vice President for student development Steve Bisese and University Chief of Police David McCoy to open a deeper dialogue about fire safety. In addition, Benner discussed safety policies with colleagues at a state meeting to understand other universities' approaches, which often include eviction on the first violation, he said.
Benner said UR is trying to be as educational as possible instead of invoking harsh punishments on first offenses.
"If a student who is found responsible through the conduct process, and understands what they did wrong can have some restorative actions taken,” he said. “But if a student is caught doing it a second time then they would be looking at being removed — from the very least being on campus."
Benner said the vandalisms were occurring any day of the week and that officials in Housing were tracking each instance of damage or vandalism to an exit sign.
"It's just disappointing to see things being vandalized just in general,” Benner said. “I started to take an angle and an approach to look at this because of the safety, because they're connected to the safety of the building, for fire safety — they illuminate when there's no lights. People have egress to know where they're going."
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Vessela Stefanova, a work control coordinator for University Facilities, wrote in an email that approximately $3,000 in damage had been caused in the past year by the vandalism of exit signs.
The amount of time it takes to replace an exit sign varies from 30 minutes to over an hour depending on how much damage occurred, Stefanova wrote in an email. The signs are an integral part of the building evacuation plan and Facilities must know about deficiencies in building safety until they can be repaired, she wrote.
“The repair can be [as] simple as replacing the illuminated portion to complete sign replacement and replacement of a ceiling tile or parts of the ceiling grid,” Stefanova wrote in her email. “If it is a wall mount, damage to the wall must be taken into account. The greater concern is that the vandalism means signage is not available in an emergency.”
Possession of an exit sign is not classified under the same category of violation, Benner said.
"We happen to find students who are in possession of an exit sign, and that falls under our standards for possession of University property and theft, so they would go through the conduct process in that manner," he said. "The sanctions are different.
"We differentiate the possession of them because we cannot determine whether or not [students] actually did the act."
Benner added that the hope for the new policy was that it would deter students from committing vandalism, and that looking at the problem through a lens of safety could change attitudes surrounding vandalism.
"We really want the students to understand how important this is to their overall safety," Benner said.
Contact news writer Morgan Howland at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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