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In the Fray

The party’s over at the College of Santa Fe

December 10, 2008, 12:00 am

Mobile phone footage of Karla Kerner's arrest:


Midnight passed and the DJ kept playing. It was a joint birthday party for Libras, who are born, fortunately or not, under the scales of justice.

The hosts lived two blocks from the College of Santa Fe, on Vitalia Street. Approximately 30 guests were crowded inside and on the porch, drinking and trying to talk over the electronic music.

Nobody should have been surprised when the police came. The party could be heard down the block, and the Santa Fe Police Department had stepped up its patrols of the area.

But even those who understood how tense things were getting between the party-going students and the local police could not have foreseen what happened that night: the screaming, the struggle and the subsequent, sobering prospect of an 18-month prison sentence for one young woman.

Before she found herself in serious trouble—charged, among other things, with crushing a police officer’s testicles—Karla Kerner thought CSF took care of its community.

But Kerner, a petite, tattooed 22-year-old who finished school in May, quickly discovered what every new graduate eventually does: She’s on her own.

The first clue came when a college nurse declined to photograph injuries Kerner says the police inflicted during her arrest. “I paid health insurance for two years,” she says, “and never took so much as a Band-Aid.” Then she learned the college offered “no legal help, no aid, no advice” to students in trouble with the law.

To Kerner and her friends at CSF—many of whom have had their own recent encounters with police—the takeaway seems clear.

“Especially now, since the school’s having so much trouble—maybe going under—they don’t want to get themselves involved,” Kerner says. “They’re not willing to stand behind the students.”
Even for students who’ve kept out of handcuffs, it’s a scary time at the College of Santa Fe.

Just two weeks ago, students struggled to finish their finals without knowing whether they’d return in January to new classes or an empty campus.

The nearly 150-year-old private college is some $30 million in debt, which students and faculty blame on past mismanagement. Administrators have tried various ways to raise money—such as introducing sports teams and selling some land fronting St. Michael’s Drive to a bank—but none have proved sufficient.

Karla Kerner, 22, and Jesse Lester, 24, were the only people at the house party hauled off to jail. At least nine others got citations for underage drinking.The college’s last and best hope seemed to be a takeover by Laureate Education, Inc., until CSF President Stuart Kirk announced the Laureate deal had fallen through just as students and staff left for Thanksgiving. The sparse, ill-timed announcement seemed typical of CSF’s official responses in difficult times.

Administrators hope the state of New Mexico will take over the school. Rather than wait to find out, many students are preparing transfer applications. Their anxiety is apparent in every discussion. One comment recently left on SFR’s Web site sums up the fear:

“[S]hame on you College of Santa Fe, you frauds, you cheats, you horrible people. You stole my money, you conned me, you made a fool of me and every other student at this college.”

Yet even before students knew their academic futures hung in the balance, an unprecedented series of conflicts with local police this year had frayed their nerves.

Some students feel the police have targeted them for harassment. Administrators count three students arrested on campus in the fall semester and five more arrested off campus. In the three semesters prior, no students were arrested on campus.

Santa Fe Police don’t deny they’ve stepped up their patrols at CSF, although they maintain harassment is the last thing on their minds. Rather, police say, they’re taking “a more proactive role” in what is essentially a large private neighborhood that has historically stayed off the radar of law enforcement.

Ariana Lombardi, a CSF freshman working on a documentary about the rising tensions with police, takes a dispassionate view of the controversy. While Lombardi thinks the police haven’t always behaved ethically, she says, “Some of the kids are like, ‘Fuck the police. I can do what I want.”

On that point, the SFPD has proven them wrong. And the administration, essentially powerless to prevent the police from patrolling their private but wide-open campus, have offered little reassurance.

“Everybody’s pissed off,” Cole Wilson, a CSF teaching assistant and recent graduate, says. “But they don’t know what to do.”

Anger and uncertainty: No two words better summarize the mood at one of Santa Fe’s oldest and largest institutions.

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