Dean of students justifies crowded Bennett visit to campus, raises possibility of disciplinary action

Dean of Students Danielle McDonald responded to students’ concerns regarding possible breaches of COVID-19 protocols during controversial social media star Kaitlin Bennett’s stop at the Tampa campus last week that caused a large crowd to gather around her. ORACLE PHOTO/LEDA ALVIM

Students who may have violated USF’s COVID-19 policies during conservative social media personality Kaitlin Bennett’s visit to the Tampa campus Oct. 7 could potentially be referred to the Student Code of Conduct and face disciplinary actions.

Dean of Students Danielle McDonald delivered a presentation to the Student Government Senate on Tuesday night to address concerns raised by students following Bennett’s campus visit. McDonald talked about possible disciplinary action for students who violated USF’s COVID-19 protocols, including mask noncompliance, during Bennett’s time on campus. 

“We are identifying whoever was violating our policies, and we’ll be holding them accountable through the Student Code of Conduct,” McDonald said.

Bennett, known as “Gun Girl” after posting a photo holding her graduation cap and carrying an AR-10 rifle, drew hundreds of students during her visit. Surrounded by five bodyguards and supporters, Bennett walked around the outside of the Marshall Student Center while interviewing students about the upcoming election, President Donald Trump and even abortion.

McDonald said the university was informed one day before the visit about her coming on campus. Bennett was aware of USF’s COVID-19 protocols, including the required use of face coverings at all times and the 6-foot social distancing policy, prior to her arrival. She said she received several emails from students questioning Bennett’s presence and USF’s COVID-19 protocols.

USF currently prohibits any club or organization to host in-person meetings or events on campus. Since Bennett’s campus appearance was not publicized, McDonald said her visit was not classified as an event. She said the university could not prevent her from appearing on campus as she was practicing her freedom of speech and USF had to be “content-neutral.”

“We couldn’t control how she decided to do this,” McDonald said. “Her plan was to walk around and interview people. Can’t really do that virtually and that really wouldn’t have been something that we would have been able to stop, being an open public campus.”

A crowd formed as students took videos and pictures of Bennett walking around campus and shared them on social media. Due to the large crowd, McDonald said the USF Event Response Team was brought in to “de-escalate” any conflicts and enforce USF’s COVID-19 guidelines.

“Oftentimes, we want the police not to be the first contact to students,” she said. “And so it is our staff who work with students on a daily basis who are that contact. So our event response team is out there, I was out there and held everybody accountable to wearing masks, the group got larger and larger, and it became much more difficult to hold people accountable for social distancing.”

As a result of the large crowd, social distancing was hardly enforced or followed, though most students seemed to comply with the face masks policy.

Whenever a student was spotted wearing their mask below their nose or refusing to wear a mask, McDonald said she confronted them, including Bennett.

University Police (UP) arrived at the scene, with most officers riding bikes. They later used their bikes to create a barricade to separate students of opposing views.

“We had to make some decisions as to whether we continue to allow the group to assemble or whether we would shut that down,” McDonald said. “We decided to continue to let the group assemble as long as everyone was still wearing their masks. People understood the risks that they were taking in the larger group.”

Bennett’s controversial visit ignited conflict among the crowd of students.

UP sent a community notification on Oct. 8 of a “robbery by sudden snatching and battery” that took place during Bennett’s USF stop. The suspect allegedly removed a flag with President Donald Trump’s campaign logo from the victim’s hand and pulled the victim’s face covering off, according to UP. 

The suspect was described as a 5-foot-tall Black female wearing a white hoodie, sunglasses and a black face mask, according to the report. The incident is currently being investigated by UP.

During the gathering, another incident took place where an individual pulled a sign from the victim and tore it up. Amid the reports, McDonald said the university will take action to hold students who violated any protocols accountable.

“As they are identified to us, we are following up and holding people accountable,” McDonald said. “But I can’t look at a video and … go through all student rosters or pictures or things like that. So as the individuals are identified to us, we’re reporting those to Student Conduct to then investigate and hold people accountable.”

Once the Student Code of Conduct and Ethical Development Office receives a report, staff will have an initial meeting with the student to inform them about the charges they may be facing, ranging from endangering health and safety to physical altercations. Depending on the severity of the incident, a student may be given a warning or an educational sanction.

Despite the concerns raised by students, McDonald said the crowd that gathered was the issue, not Bennett’s visit.

“USF did not have her here and we did not sponsor her and we did not invite her, but we can’t tell her that she couldn’t come because it was not the problem, to be honest,” McDonald said. “Her messaging can be very controversial and incendiary.

“But we can’t deny her coming because of that, and students have the choice whether they showed up or not. And honestly, I was hoping that our students weren’t going to come … because our students have done such a great job being careful about their health and safety, but there’s also the celebrity factor.”