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

People stand around a statue of George Washington tied with a Palestinian flag and a keffiyeh inside a pro-Palestinian encampment at George Washington University in Washington, DC, U.S., May 2, 2024. (REUTERS/Craig Hudson/File Photo)

Ahead of the University of Michigan’s commencement on Saturday, 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 canceled 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 U.S. 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 U.S. 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.

At Columbia University — the epicenter 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.

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 behavior,” 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.

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