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4/20 at CU-Boulder: Student government argued against campus closure

CU-Boulder's decision to close campus on April 20 for the second straight year in an effort to permanently squash the long-running 4/20 event there has already generated complaints and threats of legal action.

Current representatives of Colorado University Student Government (CUSG) aren't fans of a campus shutdown, either, and argued against it in meetings with administration officials. But while they didn't win the war, they earned some smaller victories they hope will point in a more positive direction down the line.

Last year, as we've reported, a previous CUSG administration worked hand in hand with the administration, conceiving a Wyclef Jean concert as a free alternative gathering for students who might otherwise be tempted to light up at 4:20 p.m. on the big day. But only about 1,250 people turned out for a bash that earned Jean $80,000 and cost approximately $150,000.

The tide changed with the arrival of new student leaders (disclosure: my twin daughters are members of CUSG). During a January interview, CUSG director of health and safety Chris Schaefbauer expressed some misgivings about how the campus visitor ban was handled in 2012, despite an antipathy for the 4/20 bash's location. "We don't want it on the campus," he told us. "We continue to agree with last year's CUSG and administration about that. But we think there are different ways to accomplish that."

Brittni Hernandez.
Brittni Hernandez.

The administration ultimately disagreed, but student body president Brittni Hernandez still believes that taking part in the process was important.

"I feel this year was very different in terms of the working relationship we've had with the administration," she says. "Although we disagreed on points, I think they really took the opportunity to listen to students, and I feel good that they treated us like colleagues and professionals."

CUSG created a task force charged with coming up with what Hernandez calls "short-term and long-term solutions" for 4/20. And after conducting surveys and speaking with students from all walks of campus life, the message came through loud and clear -- closing the university was a bad idea, and so was requiring students and visitors to show identification on April 20 in order to be granted access to school grounds.

The reasons for opposition to ID checks ranged from historical -- she cites World War II era laws in Europe targeting members of the Jewish community -- to very up-to-the-minute reasons. For some LGBTQ students, "their gender presentation doesn't match their ID," Hernandez points out, "and being asked, 'Is this you?' may bring up other trauma that we don't want students experiencing. And many students of color and low-income students who might be white have experiences dealing with police that asking for IDs can bring up."

She acknowledges that the administration isn't setting out to press such buttons, "but we told them what it feels like -- what it was like for members of these communities last year."

In the end, though, "for their own reasons of wanting to stay consistent, they decided to close campus and continue ID checks. But they have tried to employ things that meet us halfway. The police will be briefed about not being racially biased, about asking everyone for IDs, and being sensitive if gender presentation doesn't match the ID."

Continue for more about the Colorado University Student Government's take on CU-Boulder's April 20 shutdown plan.

Officers will also distribute cards that a CU spokesman characterized as offering a better explanation for why the campus is being closed than was provided last year. But Hernandez highlights something else about the handouts: "They will give people places to report if an incident goes wrong. It builds in accountability, because people can give some feedback."

CUSG members will also be monitoring throughout the day to make certain that procedures are being followed and people of every description are respected.

Another photo of Hernandez.
Another photo of Hernandez.

In addition, CUSG asked for, and appears to have gotten, improvements in the way visitor passes will be distributed. "We asked them to create a better system -- to demonstrate some trust of faculty, students and staff. Last year, people had to give an excuse and be bused onto campus. This year, because of our work and the voices of undergraduate and grad students, they're creating another task force to determine how people will get visitor passes, and we hope you'll be able to get one by e-mail."

The administration also acquiesced to CUSG requests that foul-smelling fish fertilizer not be spread on Norlin Quad, traditionally ground zero for the 4/20 event.

"The administration said fish fertilizer kept people off the quad and helped them avoid confrontations -- and that's fine if you feel that's effective," Hernandez says. "But how do we really measure success? We didn't feel it was effective, because students felt disrespected -- felt they were being treated like children. Some people got nauseated, too. It was just silly and a really big expense, and they came back to us and agreed not to use it this year."

Speaking of big expenses, CUSG will not be paying for another concert this year. In surveys, Hernandez notes, respondents overwhelmingly said "they didn't want student fee dollars going to something like that. And we felt it was a distraction. It wasn't really giving students the agency to be part of the solution."

Still, Hernandez feels many questions remain about how best to deal with the 4/20 situation at CU-Boulder in future years.

"If 4/20 is going to be a political event, how do we have political conversations about drug policy, or policing, or other conversations that aren't marijuana related?" she asks. "How do we continue to make the campus a space to have those conversations? And if they're political, how do we do it in a different way?"

More from our Education archive: "4/20: Why CU's going without fish fertilizer to stop pot rally, but still closing Boulder campus."