When I was preparing to move to Albion College in the late summer of 2018, I was given a series of objects that were expected to ease the burden of my journey: wash cloths to clean my face, a deck of cards to keep me entertained, small decorative items to give my dorm room some life, and so forth. One of the last things I received was a bright pink canister of pepper spray, which my mother happened to pick up at work.
I was an 18-year-old girl who would be living more independently than I ever have, and according to myself and my mother, I needed to be ready to protect myself. My mom and I are not alone in thinking this.
An overwhelming majority of the women I know on Albion’s campus own pepper spray, which comes as no surprise to me. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN), students are at a higher risk of sexual violence during their first and second semesters of college. Moreover, according to a 2018 survey by the Association of American Universities (AAU), 26.4% of undergraduate female students and 6.9% of male students experience “nonconsensual sexual contact by physical force or inability to consent.” Both of these numbers increased compared to a similar survey given by the AAU in 2015.
According to the Office of Campus Safety Statistics listed in the Student Handbook, there have been 14 charges of sexual assault, two charges of domestic violence, and three charges of dating violence on Albion’s campus from fall 2016 to spring 2019. These numbers do not include incidents not reported to Albion College Campus Safety or incidents that did not result in charges.
Without even knowing these exact statistics, people like myself, my mom and the other women on this campus were well aware of the sexually aggressive stigma any college campus carries.
Despite my awareness of the potential dangers of living on a college campus, my pink pepper spray needed to remain at home. This is because, according to the Albion College Student Handbook, possession or use of mace is prohibited, and according to Albion College Campus Safety, pepper spray is considered a type of mace.
Mace is also listed as an example of a “dangerous chemical” not allowed in student housing. The Student Handbook also bans other common forms of self defense, such as stun guns and tasers. This includes prohibition on the students themselves, in any of the campus buildings and any car on campus property.
Though it is prohibited from being on campus in any form, if you ask any female student on campus, there is a large chance she will have pepper spray either on her or in her possession. There are two possible reasons for this: Either she is ignorant of the rule against pepper spray on campus, or she values her ability to defend herself above any potential disciplinary action.
If you are a female Albion student and you did not know pepper spray is prohibited, you are in good company. When this piece was first pitched, many of the women in the room responded with surprise that pepper spray is outlawed on our campus. As I sought out student opinions regarding pepper spray on campus, I received even more surprised reactions.
If you are a female Albion student and you value self defense above campus law, you are in equally good company. In fact, since 2016, only five incidents of weapons policy violations were charged. Of those charges, none happened in the most recent 2018-2019 school year.
Though the specific weapons that violated policy are not listed, even if we assume all five referred to pepper spray, that would still be a low number. The last Campus Safety Incident Log mentioning the use of pepper spray occurred in the spring semester of 2018. The stakes are relatively low for people on campus carrying pepper spray who only intend on using it in self defense.
Even with so few reports of weapons policy violations or incident logs regarding the use of pepper spray, many students disapprove of the school’s choice to ban pepper spray.
“It should be allowed for whatever purposes people need it for,” said Mark Smith, a sophomore from Cincinnati. “I don’t see why it shouldn’t be allowed.”
Others view it as a necessity for self defense in the moments before Campus Safety can arrive.
“Campus Safety does a pretty good job in general in making campus feel safe for people, it’s just that there’s some instances where they can’t be there right away,” said Marley Dawson, a senior from Boise, Idaho. “The pepper spray gives you just a little more safety than you would have otherwise, along with that feeling of comfort.”
Having known fellow students who have been sexually assaulted or harassed and as someone who frequently walks downtown or out at night alone, I would like the security of holding pepper spray in my pocket, ready to defend myself if the need be.
Just like my fellow students in favor of carrying pepper spray, I am not paranoid of what may happen to me, but I would prefer the certainty that I could physically ward off potential assaults that can happen.
Despite the outrage, confusion, ignorance and disregard toward Albion’s policy against pepper spray on campus, the policy still exists and likely will exist for the time being. This, however, does not mean that students at Albion are forced to remain helpless in the face of sexual violence. One of the benefits of living in an ever changing technological world is the constant innovations to make the world a better place.
There are multiple modern adaptation of the traditional rape whistle. Similar to a car alarm, personal alarms, such as the B A S U eAlarm, release a piercing sound about as loud as an ambulance when triggered to help scare away possible assailants.
More discrete personal safety devices include apps, such as Red Panic Button, which allow users to send their GPS location to emergency contacts whenever the eponymous red button is pressed. Others have similar functions but send alerts in different ways, such as Watch Over Me, which sends your location when your phone is shaken.
There are even devices, like Revolvar, which come with a small button that, when pressed, automatically sends an alert to emergency contacts, telling them that you feel unsafe or need someone to call emergency services.
At the end of the day, however, these devices can only go so far in aiding self-defense. As someone who knows and is friends with multiple people who have experienced either sexual harassment or sexual violence on this campus, I know that a piercing alarm or sending my location to loved ones may not prevent an assault.
That is why it is important that college students, regardless of gender, must have a way to physically defend themselves. Right now, it can be as simple as a set of keys or as in depth as taking a self defense course. I hope, just as many Albion students hope, that one day pepper spray can be added to that list.