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First-year students take safety into their own hands

Though Mills College provides security services on campus, there are students who feel it is necessary to take their protection into their own hands when they travel beyond its gates. With Oakland both perceived and ranked as one of the most dangerous cities in the United States, some students at Mills take safety precautions ranging from self defense and martial arts classes to carrying defensive weapons.

Some Mills students, worried about crime in Oakland, are taking extra precautions when off campus, such as taking self defense classes and carrying weapons. (Photo Illustration by Lauren Sliter)
Some Mills students, worried about crime in Oakland, are taking extra precautions when off campus, such as taking self defense classes and carrying weapons. (Photo Illustration by Lauren Sliter)

“I’m not exactly a hard-ass,” said Ariana Cuellar, a first-year student, who first considered taking a self defense course when she started driving alone about a year ago.

“I really, really wanted a knife,” said Cuellar as she recalled one of her first nights in Oakland, alone in her friend’s car near the Laurel District. She said her first Oakland experience involved a startling exchange with some strangers on the street.

“I think everyone should have a way to defend themselves,” said Cuellar. She said her mom is buying her a knife over winter vacation.

Cuellar is not alone. Two women in her campus residence hall carry weapons when they explore Oakland.

Colleen Kimsey, also a first year, owns a multipurpose pocket knife that she lovingly refers to as Margarite.

“I took a bunch of self defense classes in high school,” said Kimsey, who also has three years of kickboxing under her belt. Kimsey sees her ability to defend herself more as a fun personality quirk than a legitimate need, and she is more than happy to joke about carrying a knife.

Authorities worry, however, that carrying a weapon will cause more harm than good, and it is this risk that has led the Oakland Police Department to frown upon citizens carrying weapons.

“We don’t suggest that citizens carry weapons,” said Officer Jeff Thomason, the Public Information Officer for OPD. He said in dangerous situations personal weapons are often taken and used against the victim.

“It’s likely that it will be used against you,” said Kimsey about her knife if she were ever in an altercation. This is particularly true if the weapon holder does not know how to use it appropriately. The outcome of a conflict can depend on just how a knife is held – carry it incorrectly and a person can end up hurting themselves.

For this reason, there are many California state regulations that go along with carrying a weapon. For example, carrying a blade that does not close and lock, or one with a spring loaded trigger such as a switch blade, is prohibited. And no weapon may be concealed in public without a permit.

Some incoming students feel these regulations are not enough.

“I don’t trust peoples’ intellect to carry around a knife and to use it appropriately,” said first-year Rachel Reyes. Though she believes women, in particular, should know how to protect themselves, she also thinks being armed is partially what causes violence in the first place.

“Self defense classes are a valuable resource for individuals wanting to learn safety techniques. But with training comes the responsibility of keeping your training and skills current. Avoiding a confrontation can often be the best policy,” said Niviece Robinson, Assistant Director of Public Safety.

According to Robinson, the most important step in protecting oneself is having a plan. Though she suggests being alert, confident and prepared in public settings, she said the department does not necessarily condone carrying a weapon.

“The best protection tool we each have is our mind,” said Robinson. “There is crime in every city. But not all of Oakland is crime infected.”

Robinson said students should check with the Mills student handbook before purchasing weapons. “Mills students should be mindful of not unknowingly violating any campus polices in terms of weapons on campus,” she said. “Not all items sold in stores are clear for everyone to carry.”

Oakland is plagued by issues of crime. The city was ranked as having the third highest crime rate in the country in 2008, according to an annual controversial report released in November by CQ Press, a publishing company. Mayor Ron Dellums denounced the report, saying in a statement “While the F.B.I has questioned the validity of these rankings and the U.S. Conference of Mayors says this report is both ‘misleading and a disservice to the public,’ Oakland’s own data says that our city is making progress in bringing peace to our streets.”

From Mills Policy Handbook
5.3 Dangerous Items
Fireworks, firearms, live ammunition, explosives, toxic substances, highly flammable substances, any knife having a blade longer than 2 ½ inches and other weapons are prohibited from use or storage in the residence halls. Possession of illegal items may result in termination of the Residence Agreement.

Alternatives to weapons, according to the Public Safety Office:
Pepper Spray – legal sprays
Self defense classes (on campus)
Emergency preparedness classes (on campus)
California State Regulations on Knives