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Virginia: Five WM Students Charged for Sit-In, Vow to Continue Fight
Williamsburg Yorktown Daily
Amber Lester Kennedy

April 21, 2011
View the Original Article

Campus police at the College of William and Mary charged five students with trespassing early Thursday, after the students had spent 16 hours sitting in protest at the office of President Taylor Reveley.

The students, all members of the Living Wage Coalition, told the administration they would not leave until Reveley pledged to pay the college’s housekeepers higher wages. Trespassing is a class 1 misdemeanor, and a court date has been set for 8:30 a.m. on May 3 at Williamsburg-James City County General District Court.

The students began the protest at 9 a.m. Wednesday, gathering at Reveley’s office in the Brafferton Building. Over the course of the day, two professors visited the students to give “teach-ins” and according to LWC members, approximately 30 people chanted and sang songs outside the building. At midnight, Vice President for Student Affairs Ginger Ambler told the students they no longer had permission to remain in the office building and directed them to leave within 10 minutes to avoid arrest.

At approximately 12:50 a.m., five campus policemen arrested junior Maggie Russolello, senior Katie Dalby, senior Addie Alexander, senior Kathleen Brower and junior Emily Glasson, issuing them trespassing tickets and before they escorted the students out of the building. Russolello said the police initially told the women they would be going to jail, but once escorted outside, they were told they were free to leave at that time.

In her statement to the students, Ambler said the administration appreciates their passion and supports their rights to express their views. She said for that reason, Reveley met with the students for more than two hours to discuss the issue, and said it was also why the college allowed them to enter his office.

“Arresting students is never a desired outcome – one we have attempted to avoid the entire day,” Ambler said. “If you do not leave, you will give us no other choice because it is time for this disruption to come to an end.”

In a separate statement, Reveley said it is admirable to care about matters of policy and be a strong advocate. “It is not admirable, however, to insist that your point of view is the only reasonable one and that, until you get your way, you will disrupt the work of the university,” he said. “Occupying other people’s offices until you get your way is, of course, incompatible with the way we live together at William and Mary. This tears the fabric and cannot be accepted.”

Russolello said Thursday that the students have researched the successes and failures of living wage campaigns at other universities. She said Harvard ran a successful campaign in 2001, and Georgetown University succeeded in getting pay raises in 2005. Students have often been cited with honor code violations or arrested, however. In 2006, 17 University of Virginia students were arrested for staging a similar sit-in; all were later acquitted.

Still, Russolello said the students were surprised they were arrested. “We were really, really hoping it wouldn’t happen,” she said. “We are disappointed they would rather arrest us than work with us to combat poverty.”

A living wage campaign was first launched ten years ago, but the current campaign began at the start of the 2010-11 school year. The students have particularly sought to raise the wages of the university’s housekeepers, who make between $9 and $11 an hour. The LWC would like to see their wages raised to $15 an hour. They cite $36,644 as a living wage for a family with one parent and one child living in the Virginia Beach/Norfolk/Newport News area, using a living wage calculator developed by the Economic Policy Institute. Right now, the students say approximately 360 WM employees are earning a salary below $31,200, and many of the housekeepers work multiple jobs to make ends meet.

Throughout the school year, the LWC members have asked Reveley and outgoing Board of Visitors Rector Henry Wolf why the college won’t consider raising the workers’ wages. Since the first discussions, both have pointed out that the college has had unprecedented decreases in state funding and has given no base salary increases for any employees for five of the past 10 years. In public forums, Reveley has asked the students where the college could trim the budget to pay for the raises, and said it could be achieved if all students were willing to pay more in tuition.

In a statement, WM spokesman Brian Whitson said, “Stagnant wages impose a real burden on our people, especially William and Mary employees at the low end of the pay scale such as housekeepers, groundskeepers and clerks. We have many employees of the College who deserve much better pay than they now receive.”

Whitson said it would cost $4.5 million to bring all college employees to at least $15 an hour. He added that the college’s average wage of $9.97 an hour for housekeepers is higher than the state’s average rate of $9.43 an hour, and is in line with other state universities. All full-time employees also receive full benefits, and no members of the custodial staff have been laid off during the economic crisis, he said.

The Living Wage Campaign members feel the college should try to lead the state by enacting higher wages. “We’re trying to make the point this isn’t a budget crisis, this is a moral crisis,” Russolello said. “The budget is a moral document that shows the priorities of our school. It’s that workers aren’t being prioritized.”

She criticized the college’s recent announcement that it will build a $26 million fraternity housing complex, to open in Fall 2012. Although she recognized the funds come from the capital improvement fund and cannot be allocated for use in the operating fund, she said the college could solicit alumni to pay for the raises in the same manner it solicits support for construction. She said the students have not had access to the detailed operating budget, and would have to pay for copied pages if they filed a Freedom of Information Act request to see the document.

In addition to being charged with trespassing, the students received about five code of conduct violations. Russolello said there’s a chance the administration would not allow the seniors to walk in the May 15 graduation ceremony, but said they would be “really disappointed” if the university made that decision. Although three of the five students arrested are seniors, Russolello, a junior, said she has no plans of backing down when the semester concludes.

“Things always lose steam over the summer, but I’m definitely confident this is only the beginning,” she said. “I know my entire time at William and Mary will be devoted to the fight.”