Metal detectors. No banners, flags or large bags. Expect heightened security at university commencements after protests

Madelyn Gamble’s journey to graduation at Indiana University has been bookended by forces beyond her control.

Gamble spent freshman year taking online university courses amid the Covid-19 surge. She didn’t meet anyone in her graduating class until sophomore year. And now protests in response to the Israel-Hamas war have detracted from the completion of her senior year.

The information systems major hasn’t been on campus since last week, when, she said, the situation started “to get out of hand.”

“We started college in a time of a lot of instability, where no one really knew what was going on,” said Gamble, a native of Washington state. “We started in instability and we’re ending in instability.”

From New York to Los Angeles, traditional university graduation ceremonies – many beginning this weekend – will take place on the heels of escalating confrontations over the war in Gaza, with police entering campuses to make mass arrests and rip apart encampments.

A time of sun-drenched pomp and circumstance, esteemed speakers, academic robes and decorated mortarboards arrives amid anxiety and exasperation for graduates, faculty and university officials grappling with safety concerns over potential disruptions.

An important personal milestone for many young adults will be reached against a backdrop of police barricades and heightened law enforcement presence, metal detectors and other security measures. Trained staffers will be on hand to manage disruptions.

US colleges have been using law enforcement – along with academic suspensions and expulsions – t o quell student demonstrations since Hamas’ October attack on Israel left more than 1,200 dead and dozens taken hostage. Israel’s devastating response in Gaza – with more than 34,000 Palestinians killed, according to its health ministry – has further fueled deeply held views of students and faculty on all sides.

In Gamble’s case, she and her family don’t plan to attend Friday’s main commencement ceremony after Indiana University Police and Indiana State Police last week arrested more than 30 protesters at an encampment on the Bloomington campus.

“They decided that they didn’t want to go,” Gamble said. “Just play it safe.”

Gamble’s family instead will attend a more intimate ceremony hosted by her individual college.

Madelyn Gamble is graduating from Indiana University. - Madelyn Gamble
Madelyn Gamble is graduating from Indiana University. - Madelyn Gamble

Staffers ready to ‘respond to disruptions’

In a message to graduates and their families, Indiana University this week said it has implemented additional security measures and will have designated areas for protests outside the ceremonies.

The university will award nearly 19,000 degrees in ceremonies from Friday through next Thursday.

“Inside the venue staffers will respond to disruptions, beginning with warnings and requests to respect the importance of the celebrations for our graduates and their families,” the university said.

All guests will enter through metal detectors. All bags will be subject to inspection.

“Guests are permitted to bring clear bags that are approximately the size of a one-gallon freezer bag or small clutch approximately the size of a hand,” the university said. “Prohibited items include backpacks, banners, placards, flags, noise makers, weapons, packages and outside food and beverage.”

Capt. Ron Galaviz, an Indiana State Police spokesman, said the agency has been “in constant communication” with the university and its police department.

“We continue to monitor the situation on campus and are ready to render assistance should IUPD request that of us,” Galaviz said in a statement.

Conflicts in California

More than 2,000 people have been arrested on college and university campuses since April 18, according to a CNN review of university and law enforcement statements. Protesters have been arrested on more than 40 campuses in at least 25 states.

Commencement ceremonies this weekend come after police in Los Angeles moved into a pro-Palestinian encampment at UCLA early Thursday, tearing down tents and arresting more than 130 protesters. Fire extinguishers and water bottles were hurled at officers who, according to police, responded with flash bangs shot into the air to disperse the unruly crowds.

UCLA’s commencement ceremonies remain scheduled for June 13 through June 16, according to the university’s website.

At UCLA’s in-state rival, the University of Southern California, graduates won’t have the opportunity to attend the school’s main commencement ceremony. USC canceled it last week, citing “new safety measures in place.”

“We understand that this is disappointing,” the university said on its website.

The university had earlier canceled the commencement speech of its Muslim valedictorian, Asna Tabassum, over what it called security concerns. USC then canceled appearances by prominent speakers and honorees at the May 10 graduation ceremony.

USC’s commencement events were scheduled from May 8 to May 11. Its main stage ceremony traditionally brought all 65,000 students and their families together. The university said it will instead host “new activities and celebrations” to ensure graduation events are “meaningful, memorable and uniquely USC.”

‘Just looking for a positive moment’

Across the country, at Columbia University in New York, hundreds of police officers on Tuesday night moved onto campus, clearing pro-Palestinian demonstrators who had occupied and barricaded themselves in Hamilton Hall. More than 200 protesters were arrested.

Columbia said the NYPD will stay on campus through at least May 17, past the university’s May 15 commencement ceremony.

Columbia President Minouche Shafik said earlier this week the university did not “want to deprive thousands of students and their families and friends of a graduation celebration.”

“Please recall that many in this graduating class did not get a celebration when graduating from high school because of the pandemic, and many of them are the first in their families to earn a University degree,” Shafik said.

“We owe it to all of our graduates and their loved ones to honor their achievement. We want to reassure our community who are trying to make plans that we will indeed hold a Commencement.”

At the University of Michigan, where protesters have set up a pro-Palestinian encampment, spring graduation will take place Saturday at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor. The ceremony for those receiving graduate degrees will be held Friday.

“Commencement ceremonies have been the site of free expression and peaceful protest for decades and will likely continue to be,” the University of Michigan said in a statement.

University of Michigan senior Meera Herle, who was student body president this school year, said she was “just looking for a positive moment” at this weekend’s ceremonies. She recalled her pandemic-era high school commencement in Buffalo, New York, which was broken down into small groups and took place on a field. There were no hugs, no handshakes.

In a way, Herle said, the pandemic helped her college classmates to graduate in the midst of another unexpected event.

“Our class has sort of dealt with a lot of … unforeseen circumstances throughout our young adult lives,” she said. “I think that this is also something that we are equipped to deal with.”

Herle said she is excited her family is attending her graduation and hopes the experience is not tarnished.

“I’m going to have to sit down with my family before our big Michigan Stadium graduation and maybe have a quick conversation with them just to sort of prep them, ‘Maybe this is something you’ll see,’ ” she said. “You know, getting them sort of in the mindset of, ‘It’s a college campus. This is what’s going on everywhere. Let it play out. Everything will be OK.’ ”

Focus on security, and the graduates

There will be a designated area for protests outside ceremony venues, the University of Michigan said on its website, noting all commencement events will include security screenings, prohibit banners and flags, and be monitored by volunteers who will immediately “respond to disruptions, beginning with warnings.”

“Deans and directors will generally be patient with lawful disruptions,” said the university, where police in March arrested 40 people for trespassing after protesters forced entry to a locked building. “If protests significantly impede the program, leadership will take steps to de-escalate and address the interruption.”

Colleen Mastony, the university’s assistant vice president for public affairs, added: “This might include asking someone to relocate a sign or to otherwise stop ongoing disruptive behavior. All of our events will be led by professional staff, including members of our division of public safety and security.”

The Michigan State Police will assist the University of Michigan Police Department, according to State Police Lt. Rene Gonzalez. Melissa Overton, a deputy chief for the university police, declined comment.

“Given events around the nation and world, our commencement ceremonies, too, will likely be the site of various student expressions, including possible demonstrations,” University of Michigan Provost Laurie K. McCauley and Martino Harmon, vice president for student life, said in an email to graduates and their families.

On Sunday, Ohio State University – where more than 30 protesters were arrested last week – will hold its graduation at Ohio Stadium.

“Ohio State is not considering canceling commencement at this time and will adjust staffing and public safety plans if needed,” said Benjamin Johnson, a university spokesperson. “The university does not share details of its safety and security plans, but standard plans have always included a disruption protocol.”

All people entering the stadium will be subject to security screening and inspection. Metal detectors will be in place. Bags as well as banners and signs will be prohibited.

Similar measures will be employed by Northeastern University, which will hold commencement exercises attended by about 50,000 people Sunday at Fenway Park in Boston.

About 100 people were detained last Saturday as authorities cleared “an unauthorized encampment” on the Boston campus, according to a university spokesperson. The university said large bags will be prohibited at the commencement, along with signs, banners and flags. Metal detectors will be in place at Fenway.

“The safety and security of our community is always our highest priority,” Renata Nyul, Northeastern’s vice president for communications, said in a statement.

“While we realize that issues in the world prompt passionate viewpoints, the focus this weekend should be on our graduates and their remarkable achievements. We look forward to celebrating our graduating students with their families.“

The type of bags allowed at commencement was in incorrect in a previous headline on this story. Clear bags are permitted.

Correction: An earlier headline on this story incorrectly described what kind of bags will be banned. Northeastern University will ban large bags.

CNN’s Chris Isidore, Rachel Ramirez, Dakin Andone, Samantha Delouya, Rebekah Riess and Emma Tucker contributed to this report.

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