Last week, on February 13, Tuesday afternoon, at 3:26 p.m., the Colgate community received an e-mail like nothing it had ever received before; the administration was considering canceling school for the next day. This potential cancellation was not due to Valentine’s celebrations, but instead to a caveat for an incoming blizzard. What happened in the following 23 hours was a breakdown in decision-making that put our community at risk, when safety should have been the primary concern.
The Valentine’s Day blizzard was predicted up to five days ahead of time, and by Monday afternoon was estimated to blanket Hamilton with more than 30 inches of snow. A forecast of 30 inches of snow over 24 hours is something that Hamilton has seen only a few times in recent history, and certainly something I have not seen in my four years at Colgate. Therefore this was an unusually strong storm, not of the unpredictable lake-effect type, and those responsible for our safety knew about it days ahead of its arrival on Tuesday.
As morning came on Tuesday, preparations were well underway for the incoming storm. Snow removal crews got ready for a full day of plowing, residents around town got ready to shovel their driveways and schools across Central New York cancelled classes. The snow began to fall Tuesday around 7:30 p.m., and was not light, nor was it very wet. It stuck to the ground and began to pile up fast. By Wednesday around 9:30 a.m. there was upwards of six to nine inches on the ground, with more snow falling fast. The forecast had not changed since the day before; 30 inches of snow remained the estimate for the day. Yet amidst all evidence supporting the contrary, the Colgate administration chose to keep the University open through the storm. We soon learned that this decision was a serious mistake.
By the time the University was belatedly closed for business at 2:00 p.m., it was too little, too late. Around 1:20 p.m., a professor was driving his car on the road behind MacGregory when a large avalanche of snow and ice came roaring down off the roof of the building. The snow and ice went straight through his windshield, nearly totaling his vehicle, but luckily leaving him unscathed.
This incident represents the consequences of the lack of judgment on behalf of the administration by keeping school open last Wednesday. Imagine if this hadn’t been the only incident of the day. What if someone up the hill, in the academic or residential quads, had a major medical emergency? And what if it happened at the time between classes, for example, between 11:10 a.m. and 11:20 a.m.? There is no way an ambulance could have gotten past the throngs of students carpooling to class, the cruisers struggling to climb up the hill through the snow and the plows trying to clear the snow. School should have been closed for that reason alone.
According to the glossary of legal terms on Law.com (a property of American Lawyer Media), negligence is defined as “failure to exercise the care toward others which a reasonable or prudent person would do in the circumstances.” Gross negligence is defined as “carelessness which is in reckless disregard for the safety or lives of others, and is so great it appears to be a conscious violation of other people’s rights to safety.” The Colgate administration was negligent by keeping school open on February 14. It was grossly negligent by not utilizing all possible resources to keep snow and ice from falling off the roofs of its facilities. The avalanche off MacGregory into a professor’s car proves Colgate was grossly negligent in that situation.
I believe that the students, professors and staff are owed an apology in the next issue of The Maroon-News. It should not be written over e-mail, but rather in a public forum. This incident has led me to lose some confidence in the abilities of some members of the administration, leaders of a school I love very much, and I hope that the lesson learned from this mistake will be implemented in new policies regarding weather-related closure of the school.
We all look forward to reading the apology next week.