From building snowmen on quiet weekends to losing power during blizzards, the Kenyon community is no stranger to snow. However, nothing compares to the snowball fight of winter 2001. What began as an evening of festivities on North campus escalated into a standoff with the Knox County Sheriff’s Office (KCSO), ending in six arrests and a heap of unanswered questions.
As reported in the Feb. 1, 2001 issue of the Collegian, just after midnight on the weekend of Jan. 27, the residents of New Apartment A-1 — who formally registered their own gathering that night — contacted Campus Safety (known as Campus Security at the time) to close down the event, a standard procedure. After arriving to North campus, Kenyon officers heard a different commotion nearby. This gathering was unregistered and included upwards of 50 guests. Campus Security dispersed the partygoers, forcing them to leave the apartment they had been partying in. As the students spilled out onto the lawn, they continued their fun with a winter classic: a snowball fight.
What started as harmless play quickly turned sour when students began throwing snowballs at College property, including fragile windows. Campus Security, now unsure of its ability to handle the animated crowd, contacted the KCSO for assistance. By the time Deputies Janet Monroe and Damon Roberts responded to Kenyon’s call, an estimated 150 students were hurling frozen handfuls at buildings and each other. It did not take long for students to hit both officers in the flurry. Whether these snowballs were intended for Monroe and Roberts is unclear, but nevertheless, after half an hour of police presence, the crowd calmed down.
The police departed, handing responsibility back to Campus Security. They did not make it far, however, as students regathered and Kenyon called them back just 20 minutes later. When the police returned, they arrived with two additional Sheriff’s deputies and two officers from the Danville Police Department in tow. By this point, close to 400 students had joined the commotion on North campus. At the sight of six police officers, many students dispersed and watched the action from the perimeter; some others took a different route. Amped up from the snowball fight or angry at the presence of law enforcement, several students became belligerent with the officers, getting very close and shouting threats.
Police arrested one student during the excitement for disorderly conduct, but the handcuffs did not go on peacefully. A number of the student’s classmates rushed towards the arresting officer, yelling and pushing their way through the crowd. At this point, details of the following events are disputed, but certain key events are agreed upon.
As students made their way forward, officers used pepper spray on the crowd. After five more arrests, at least one more round of pepper spray and a student breaking their hand, the crowd dispersed by 2:30 a.m. The police did successfully send students back to their dorms, as the College requested, but their actions raised many questions about why and how the police broke up a snowball fight.
While snowball fights have a reputation as being synonymous with innocent, childhood fun, there was cause for concern that night. If the projectiles have ice, rock or other debris inside, they can pose serious danger to people and property. Cities like Wausau, Wis. and Severance, Colo. have even made snowball fights illegal for this very reason. “Security and Safety need to protect students from danger. We do not want to keep students from having registered parties. We don’t want to invade on their privacy,” said then-Director of Security and Safety Dan Werner, “We don’t write the rules, we enforce them.”
Why Campus Security contacted the police instead of enforcing the rules themselves remains unclear. Officers likely doubted their ability to handle such a large crowd but they didn’t seem to take disciplinary actions of their own before police arrived. The initial appearance of deputies Monroe and Roberts went smoothly, though, with their presence being enough to disperse the crowd. Given this, why students acted so much more hostile the second time police arrived and why backup was requested before the officers even returned raised questions.
The confusion surrounding these events only increased as student and police reports diverged. Werner explained that a clear warning and countdown from 10 preceded the first use of pepper spray. Many students, such as J.P. Magenis ’01, remember the evening very differently. “The person who maced the students was Officer Shaffer and he didn’t warn anyone. He arbitrarily maced a bunch of students,” Magenis told the Collegian in 2001. While both sides agree that there was a warning, whether the countdown actually occurred and how students responded differed depending on who told the story. Then-Knox County Sheriff Dan Barber made his stance clear, saying, “My officers felt a threat of personal safety. My officers don’t get paid to be assaulted by anyone, not a Kenyon student or a Mount Vernon resident. The use of force was more than appropriate … As far as I am concerned, under the circumstances all the officers acted appropriately.”
While Barber stood by his officers, many students were incredulous at KCSO’s actions. Matthew Smith ’01 was among those in direct contact with the police and tried to deescalate matters on his own. Sensing himself getting worked up, he sat down and meditated to temper his nerves. Two officers began taunting him with gibes like, “Who the fuck do you think you are, Gandhi?” and “He’s probably praying to Allah.” Smith was then arrested for inciting to violence, making bail along with four other classmates and one alumnus.
After the drama of that snowy January weekend, the biggest outcome was a cultural fallout. Officer Shaffer, who initially deployed the pepper spray, is now the county’s sheriff and has garnered a contentious reputation at the College. Not the first nor last unfortunate encounter between Kenyon students and law enforcement, the wild snowball fight of 2001 left the Kenyon community questioning the relationship between Campus Security and police and how much of a bubble the Hill really is.
Features Editor Sophie Krichevsky contributed to reporting.