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  • Writer's pictureThe Blue and White Magazine

Identity Crisis

Updated: Mar 1, 2021

The Blue and White takes a long-range look at Barnard Public Safety

By The Blue and White

Before the encounter on April 11, 2019–you have probably heard about it by now–Alexander McNab, CC ’19, had been stopped and ID’d twice on Barnard’s campus for no obvious policy reason.

Both encounters took place in fall 2018 in Barnard Hall, where McNab attended late-night dance practices in the basement for Ijoya, an African dance group. The first time he was stopped, he was exiting dance practice, which ended at midnight: “As I was leaving through the door [of Barnard Hall], there was a Public Safety officer there who said ‘I need to see your ID’ and I said ‘Why?’ and he said, ‘I need to see if you’re a student here.’”

Illustration by Julia Cobb

The second time McNab was stopped was in the basement mid-rehearsal. He’d stepped outside the dance studio to use the bathroom, barefooted because he doesn’t dance with shoes. Coming back from the bathroom, “I’m apprehended by a whole group of Public Safety officers. And there’s more coming, because I hear them on the radio, and they said ‘We need to see your ID!’” McNab complied and asked what was going on. A Public Safety officer said that they had seen his bare feet and thought he might have been a homeless person.

On Thursday, April 11th, after 11 PM, McNab passed through the Barnard gate at 116th and Broadway and didn’t show his ID when asked. Students are supposed to flash their Columbia University IDs to the attendant at the Barnard gate between the hours of 11 PM and 6 AM. But many students who pass through the gate late at night and don’t flash their IDs aren’t called after to comply. McNab, who is black, felt like he was being singled out.

“I understand that it looks like I’m being difficult to be difficult, but I was being difficult to make a point,” he said, referring to his choice to keep moving.

McNab had seen a post on Facebook promoting leftover free food in the Milstein Center lobby and was heading over (Barnard Public Safety says he ran; McNab and bystanders say he was walking) to grab a plate.

He didn’t expect what happened next. Caroline Cutlip, BC ’20, who had left out the food on a table in the Milstein Center lobby that is right in front of the Peet’s Coffee counter, says McNab “walked in, casually, calmly into the library.” He was helping himself to food when two Barnard Public Safety officers approached him, taking ahold of his arms, and trying to get him to come outside. In a loud voice, McNab told the officers to take their hands off of him, repeating himself several times. The two officers pinned McNab to the counter behind the table, pushing him down, pressing his arms to his side, and telling him they needed to see his ID. Four officers looked on.

After about 18 seconds of lying on his back, McNab wriggled up into standing position, pulled his wallet out of his pocket, and handed his Columbia ID to one of the officers. When the officer said he was going to hold on to the ID to verify with Columbia that McNab was a student, McNab protested. The camera cut to another officer telling students gathered around the other side of the table that McNab had run past the Barnard Public Safety van, across the Barnard courtyard, and into the Milstein Center, which the students denied.

Cutlip started filming when the officers twisted McNab’s arms back, sensing that they “were not respecting his body.” Her videos of the encounter ripped across Facebook, igniting a firestorm of coverage from outlets including The New York Times, Teen Vogue, and The Washington Post. Sian Beilock, President of Barnard College, apologized the following afternoon for the “unfortunate incident last night in the Milstein Center.” The email didn’t mention McNab, his racial identity or the physical restraint that Barnard Public Safety officers had employed, which drew more criticism from students.


McNab’s viral encounter with Barnard Public Safety has thrust into the spotlight a policy that Public Safety quietly implemented with SGA support in Fall 2012. Between the hours of 11 PM and 6 AM, people passing through Barnard’s gates are required to produce Barnard or Columbia ID. Guests can enter, but they must be accompanied by their Barnard host.

Rachel Ferrari, BC ’13, was Vice President of SGA when administrators approached SGA with the policy proposal in Spring 2012. When the policy went into effect the following semester, her senior year, she remembers enforcement being spotty from the start. “If you were a female walking in, there was no questions….I think I maybe flashed my ID three times going through the gates senior year.”

Ferrari’s feelings about the necessity of the policy haven’t changed since 2012, but she thinks that Public Safety must check all IDs. “If it’s not applied to everyone, then the person it’s applied to can question that policy….When you only select certain people to ask, then I think it fails to be a good policy.”

Ferrari remembers an incident involving a non-student who showed up to campus uninvited precipitating the policy change. When The Blue and White reached out to Barnard Public Safety for comment on the late-night ID policy, they also mentioned an incident involving a non-student in their responses.

Sure enough, Bwog and The Columbia Spectator reported in early September 2012 that a 26-year-old woman named Birva Patel was under arrest after posing as a Columbia Engineering student named Rhea Sen. That fall, Patel attended ISOP and NSOP activities and other student events, explaining to event organizers that she had forgotten her ID. After more information from students emerged, administrators determined that Patel had been masquerading as a Columbia student for at least nine months.

In 2019, it is hard to imagine passing as a Columbia student for as long as Patel did without a valid student ID. We tap for Columbia libraries, residence halls, computer labs, music practice rooms, and dining halls. But at Barnard, one might be able to pull that trick for longer. The Milstein Center can be accessed by anyone from 9 AM to 6 PM on weekdays. The Diana Center doesn’t require ID. And to get into the Barnard residence halls one must simply flash their Barnard ID to the attendant sitting behind the desk, no scanning necessary. It’s not unheard of for people to flash someone else’s Barnard ID or another document altogether and make it past the desk attendant without a second glance.


It’s easy to forget that the modern-day ID rituals that CU students partake in each day are in many cases the end results of campaigns organized by students of earlier generations to make Barnard and Columbia’s campuses safer.

In 1988, Spectator reported that residents of Barnard’s Sulzberger dorm (then known as “Centennial Hall”) brought about major technology changes to the residence hall after a petition they circulated for better security received 100 signatures. The petition voiced concern that desk attendants inconsistently ID’d women entering the residence halls. It also pointed out a route through Barnard’s tunnel system that theoretically allowed anyone to get into Centennial Hall and the rest of the Barnard Quad without passing by the security desk.

In the aftermath of the petition, Barnard Safety and Security Director John Scacalossi and other administrators agreed to install a “magnetically locking door” at the main entrance of the dorm, which desk attendants could open by pressing a buzzer; video cameras in the courtyard of the Barnard Quad and in the tunnels; and an electronic door requiring ID to pass from the tunnels into the residence hall. Lastly, Barnard desk attendants were reminded to strictly enforce the policy of checking students’ IDs as students entered the residence halls.

By 2004, Columbia dormitories, Lerner Hall, and many campus libraries required ID swiping for entry. But Butler continued to use the flashing system. In the same fashion that non-students continue to enter Barnard residence halls, non-students occasionally slipped past the Butler security desk by flashing an invalid document. A Spec op-ed from February 2004 entitled “Butler Insecurity: Swipe access would keep trespassers and their penises out” reported that a non-affiliate of the university, Anthony Perri, made it past Butler’s security desk and later flashed something else at a Barnard student: his genitals. He was arrested and charged with trespassing and indecent exposure. Perri had allegedly had a history of sneaking into Butler to masturbate prior to his arrest. In the op-ed, the editorial staff emphasized that flashing IDs made for poor security.


The year 2007 was a turning point in the modern history of campus security at Barnard and Columbia. A six million dollar plan conceived by CUIT to replace all Barnard and Columbia IDs was finally enacted. The push for an upgrade had come from concerns that the Social Security Numbers linked to each student’s ID were creating an environment ripe for identity theft. By swapping SSNs for computer generated numbers, the new IDs made Columbia’s proposed Flex program a go. They also expanded Barnard and Columbia’s students’ access to academic buildings on their affiliate campuses.

Spectator reported that student government leaders and many administrators anticipated the new IDs would pave the way to online sign-in options for guests and swipe access to both Barnard and Columbia dorms. In 2008, Barnard Director of Public Safety Dianna Pennetti said to SGA in a meeting that she supported Barnard residence halls making the transition from flash access to a swipe system. Also in 2008, the CCSC Vice President of Policy ran on a platform of creating an inter-school swipe policy that would include Barnard and GS students.

Why hasn’t any of this happened? On Barnard’s end, the interconnectedness of the Quad poses a security headache for Barnard administrators overseeing an inter-swiping policy. A guest who is signed into one of the Quad residence halls could easily access the other three. To address this concern, Barnard’s guest policy mandates that Barnard hosts accompany visitors at all times. But turn the clock to early morning hours and add alcohol and the policy doesn’t translate well to practice: in March 2018, an unclothed Columbia first-year who had been signed in by a Barnard Quad resident wandered into the room of another resident and urinated on her floor. (Barnard Public Safety detained the Columbia student and contacted the NYPD, who arrested him.)

The March 2018 incident highlights another security woe of Barnard living that swipe access technology has eliminated at Columbia: many Barnard residents leave their rooms and suites unlocked. While Columbia residents’ IDs are programmed to unlock the doors to their rooms with a tap, Barnard residents get regular old keys. For forgetful Barnard residents or roommates of forgetful Barnard residents, locking the door and remembering to carry the keys is a logistical problem that can be easily sidestepped by not locking the doors in the first place.


As SGA Campus Affairs Representative, Chelsea Sinclair, BC ’21, is working hard to make Barnard’s campus more welcoming to students of color. [Editor’s note: Sinclair and the reporter served together on SGA’s Campus Affairs Committee in Fall 2017.] She supports upgrading to swipe technology, but has been told that the administration can’t devote the funds to it right now.

Sinclair, who is black, has heard stories of troubling interactions with Barnard Public Safety from students, who allege racial bias and sometimes sexual harassment or transphobia. “[Black Columbia students] have expressed to me that they felt singled out on Barnard’s campus, regardless of having a Columbia ID and also in hours of the day when the college claims to be an open campus.”

Barnard Public Safety spoke at an SGA meeting on March 11th, a month before the McNab incident. The meeting was arranged two days in advance, after Public Safety finally responded to a email request that Sinclair had sent in November. For Sinclair, the Q&A was not fruitful. “I felt that they weren’t really prepared for the meeting and I felt that they didn’t have a lot of answers to the questions that students were asking.”

Before the McNab incident on April 11th, Sinclair had been trying to change Barnard Public Safety’s practice of posting printouts of Clery Crime Reports in highly trafficked areas of campus. While Columbia Public Safety circulates these reports online, Barnard has continued to print them out. The reports typically describe larcenies and display low-quality images of the suspects, who often appear to be black men. Other black students have confided in Sinclair that the images make them uncomfortable—it’s like seeing “anonymous black faces all over campus with, essentially, wanted signs,” Sinclair says. After months of communicating with Barnard Public Safety, the printouts have finally been taken down and Barnard appears to be reconsidering the policy.


On February 24, 1969, a new group on campus, the Barnard Organization of Soul Sisters (B.O.S.S.), released a list of demands addressed to President Martha Peterson and the Board of Trustees. The items on the list ranged widely, from creating an Afro-American studies department and a lounge for black students to serving “Soul Food” in the dining hall.

The last list item? “We want an immediate end to harassment by campus security. There have been many instances in which the Black students at Barnard have been unnecessarily asked to produce Barnard identification. We feel that such practices are discriminatory and we will not tolerate them.”

As the decades went by, this demand continued to resonate. In 1988, a coalition of students, faculty and staff organized the Committee on Race, Religion, and Ethnicity (CORRE), which convened until its work was absorbed by the Office of Multicultural Affairs in 2001. In a focus group CORRE conducted on April 27, 1990, respondents shared anecdotes of feeling unwelcome on Barnard’s campus.

One student challenged the administration’s practice of advising first-year students to avoid certain neighborhoods near campus for safety reasons, which the student argued fed the narrative that nearby black communities were a threat to Barnard students. “You are telling first year students who might not have ever had any contact with African Americans from Kansas City that we are dangerous, we are not to be trusted, [the black residents] are animals. I am a Harlem resident, I am not dangerous, I am not an animal, I am intelligent, I am here to learn.”

Another student described the racial language campus security used in crime reports and how descriptors like “black male” potentially made them and any black visitor on campus “a suspicious person.”

Next, a student shared that a friend who was a visiting student at Barnard with Barnard ID had his ID questioned by a security guard and taken to show to the security guard’s supervisor. “He said: I live here. The guard said no you don’t, what are you doing here? Because he was male, black and early 20s.”

The parallels between this last anecdote and McNab’s encounter are striking. The visiting student’s Barnard ID did not change the security guard’s perception that the visiting student could not possibly be a Barnard student. For McNab, producing his Columbia University ID for Barnard Public Safety officers to see in Milstein did not convince the officers, at least initially, that his ID was real: an officer tried to walk off with it, saying Public Safety needed to “verify” it.

It’s tempting to think of counterfactuals. If the security guard had been briefed that some male visiting students do study at Barnard and hold Barnard IDs, perhaps the student’s Barnard ID wouldn’t have perplexed the guard. But it’s less clear why McNab’s Columbia University ID appeared suspicious to security personnel.

Both of these incidents, though decades apart, speak to the arbitrariness of ID as proof of Barnard-Columbia student status and point to appearance as the real passport for uninterrupted travel through Barnard’s campus. If your appearance isn’t consistent with that of most Barnard students—cisgender, female, white—then you are probably more likely to get flagged for questioning.

After McNab had had a few days to sit with what happened and talk to reporters, he started to reflect a bit differently on his decision to keep walking when the gate attendant asked him for ID. “I realized it was an act of civil disobedience,” McNab explained. “It’s important to use that vocabulary.”

Further Reading

If you’re interested in learning more about the debate over Public Safety as it has developed in the headlines, here are some pieces from around Columbia we suggest reading.

The student at the center of the latest flashpoint between students and Columbia’s Public Safety officials wrote a personal essay for The Eye, I Am More Than My ID, that touches on “having to explain to white people that I didn’t just get into Columbia because I’m black, and having to explain to black people that I didn’t become white when I started going here.”

Along with a formal statement, the Black Students’ Organization’s Political Committee in A Brief History of Anti-Black Violence and Policing at Columbia University, which additional research into Columbia’s history with Public Safety and policing in general, concluding that “Columbia and Barnard Public Safety, like all police institutions in the United States, need to be abolished and radically restructured in order to properly address and eradicate the systemic inequalities which perpetuate racial violence against Black people.

Conservative-leaning students have critiqued the pressure placed on Public Safety by concerned students, arguing that “there’s no reason to suspect that the policy is enforced in a racist manner,” as evidence that the ID policy is inconsistently enforced is anecdotal and the policy is important for security in a “closed women’s college campus.” (Barnard’s campus hosts events for the public, including the Athena Film Festival.) This argument was advanced both in Quillette and The Columbia Beacon by Coleman Hughes and Morgan Raum respectively.For more about a different context in which Barnard students may interact with Barnard Public Safety, we recommend reading Here’s What It’s Like To Call Barnard Public Safety on Bwog, where Sophie Tobin describes how she came to appreciate Public Safety after being catcalled and calling the emergency number. “There was nothing condescending about” the way Public Safety answered, “he just wanted me to feel calm and safe.”

Correction: In the print April 2019 issue, one sentence in the 4th paragraph reads “McNab knew that he was breaking a rule.” This is not correct and has been changed in the online version.


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