Law and disorder: Sheriff interrupts class

Written by: Dmitry Gurvits

M ercer County Sheriff Kevin C. Larkin and what appeared to be a female aide interrupted a State and Local Politics Class (POL 102) held in MS 205, at Mercer’s West Windsor Campus on February 1.

Associate Professor Michael Glass was conducting a discussion of what changes students would propose to the state budget to avoid the expected $2 billion shortfall. Some students suggested cutting the salaries of what they felt were overpayed state administrators.

The issue of state employees who “double dip” into state pension plans was raised during the class. Students asked Prof. Glass for a local example. At that point, Prof. Glass provided examples of several law enforcement officers, including Sheriff Larkin, who collects a Police and Fire Retirement System Pension as well as a government salary.

Information about Larkin’s pension was widely publicized in the Times of Trenton  May 23, 2009 article entitled  “Pension eligibility spurs controversy” by Anthony Coleman. The article described how “Larkin was cashing in on a move allowed under the state’s pension system: he can legally continue working as sheriff (at a $129,634 annual salary) while collecting a pension based on his ‘retirement’ from that very job.”

As reported by Coleman, Larkin has been collecting an $85,000 annual pension since January 1, 2009 after retiring from the Sheriff’s Office at the rank of Chief Sheriff’s Officer, while concurrently earning a $129,634 salary as County Sheriff.

When a student commented that they would not know what to do with the roughly $210,000 Sheriff Larkin makes in annual compensation, Glass said, “In the case of the Sheriff, it’s not that much. He has [to pay] child support and alimonies.”

The comments were made at roughly 7:30PM, when Brooke Seidl, 26, a student and County Clerk, apparently informed Sheriff Larkin of Glass’s comments, via text message.

Russell Buckley, 19, who sat near Seidl that night, reports hearing her say she was contacting Larkin “right now,” directly after Glass made the comments about Larkin. Buckley also reports hearing Seidl texting on her cell phone.

At 8:18PM, Mercer security logs indicate that Sheriff Larkin called the FA-107 Dispatcher “needing to reach Prof. Michael Glass.” An index card requesting Prof. Glass contact Larkin was delivered to MS-205 at 8:26 PM, during the class break, according to the logs.

Glass indicated that he believed the note to be a prank from one of the students. “I thought it was a joke,” said Glass. After the break Glass dismissed the supposed prank and proceeded with his lecture.

At around 9:20, a half hour before the class’s scheduled 9:50 end time, Sheriff Kevin C. Larkin, dressed in a trenchcoat, opened the door to Prof. Glass’s classroom. According to one student attending the class that night, Max Grindlinger, “[Larkin] said, ‘Michael, can I see you for a minute?”

According to Buckley, Grindlinger and another student, Diane Walker, Sheriff Larkin and Prof. Glass had a roughly three-minute conversation outside of MS 205.  No one overheard the conversation. The two then reentered the classroom, Prof. Glass introduced Sheriff Larkin and apologized for “making disparaging comments” about the Sheriff.

“[He] gives an apology while Sheriff Larkin is standing no less than six inches from him,” said Grindlinger.

Both Buckley and Grindlinger report Sheriff Larkin as saying, “This isn’t over,” on his way out of the classroom. According to Buckley, Larkin’s aide, who was waiting outside the classroom, said as the classroom door was closing, “You’re a terrible teacher, you should get your facts from a book.”

“I was surprised to see him show up at the classroom, and…I was wondering if it was approproiate for him, one, to be there, and two, to want to be in the class,” said Glass. He added ,“I didn’t feel it was the time or place to discuss it, but since he was physically there, I reacted in the way that I did.”

Glass also said, “I would say [Larkin and I have] had a friendly relationship over the last 30 years. He, in fact, worked at the college, at one time, early on in his career…back before he was even a County Sheriff’s officer,” Glass said, adding that there has not been any contention between the two in their long relationship when their “paths would cross at a number of Irish American fundraisers.”

Asked if he felt intimidated, Prof. Glass said, “Yes…I thought…he’d have a clear understanding of what any given professor, whether it’s me or anybody else, can or can’t say in a classroom.”

Prof. Glass says he does “not recall” the exact contents of his conversation with Larkin in the MS building hallway.

Glass says he used the example purely to illustrate the “dollars and cents” of law enforcement jobs. He said “at least a third to a half of [the students in the class] are Criminal Justice majors, they’re all aspiring to work in law enforcement and I wanted to make them realize that currently, law enforcement has some of the most lucrative public salaries in the state of New Jersey, and hence, in the Country…it was a whole financial discussion…as opposed to trying to denigrate any particular personality.”

Tiajuana Paige, 21, a student in Glass’s class said the professor’s comments about Larkin improved her understanding of the course material, adding, “yes…well the class is political science, so we talk about politics.”

Students in the class reacted strongly to the event.

“I was shocked more than anything. I was laughing because I was so surprised,” said Buckley, adding “that’s exactly what you don’t want from a publically-elected official.”

Walker said, “[Larkin and his aide] were very classless, and they called [Glass] by his first name no less.”

Sudent Vanessa Holguin, 25, said she felt that the event “jeopardizes the extent of [her] education,” adding that she felt Glass would “walk on egg shells,” following the incident.

Grindlinger echoed Holguin’s statement, saying “I feel like [Glass] will be more careful with the things he tries to teach about state and local government so it would not come back to him in such a rash way.”

Grindlinger also said, “Does [Larkin] not have anything better to do with his time as an elected official?…It’s an overall waste of time, I think, for someone in that stature to really complain…I wouldn’t vote for him.”

When reached by telephone and asked about her role in the events, clerk Brooke Seidl said “no comment.”

At this time, Mercer is conducting an investigation into the events.

Mercer’s President Dr. Patricia Donohue said in an interview that Sheriff Larkin did call her. She says, “[Larkin] was unhappy about the comments he had heard about. That was the first, and frankly the only person who called and told me anything about [the event].” Donohue continued, saying “Based on that discussion…I told Mr. Fernandez, who is the college compliance officer, that he needed to get more details and facts for me about what actually happened in the classroom.”

Citing the school closing due to snow and Mr. Fernandez’s vacation days, President Donohue declined to make an official comment about the event, saying “we are looking into that matter, making sure we have the right facts.”

Jose Fernandez, Mercer’s Executive Director of Compliance and Human Resources, also recieved a phone call from Sheriff Larkin, in which Larkin made allegations about Prof. Glass’s conduct. That phone call, recieved on February 2, launched the school’s investigation, says Fernandez.

Asked about a general time frame for the resolution of such investigations, Mr. Fernandez said, “it could be a few days or a few weeks, depending on how many people you need to speak with.” Fernandez indicated that the range of potential responses to such a complaint could be “nothing to firing” of the employee involved.

In regards to the role that Mercer’s security played in the incident, Director of College Safety Bryon Marshall says “the only thing [Security did was] handle [Larkin’s] note. There was no information beyond handing Professor Glass the note.” Having completed an internal security investigation, Marshall says that Security was not aware that Larkin appeared, or planned to appear, in the classroom that evening.

When asked how Security would have acted had they been able to anticipate the incident, Marshall said, “Across the board, regardless of who it is, you cannot just completely interrupt the class. It’s unfair to the students, it’s unprofessional, and it’s just, for many reasons, not something we would stand idly by. We would have them removed.We would sanction them internally. If they got into an altercation or got into conduct that was inappropriate we would call West Windsor [Police] to come and remedy the situation.”

In reaction to the incident, Elizabeth Bondurant, Professor of Criminal Justice and Retired Plainsboro Police Chief, said “As chief, you have to have very thick skin, you’re criticized and second-guessed. You’ve got to stand by your decisions.” She added that in her class controversial topics are “covered, absolutely, they’re more on topics though, not individuals.”

Despite repeated phone and in-person attempts to contact him, neither Sheriff Larkin nor the Sheriff’s Office   were available for comment.

In terms of what kind of impact such an incident has on academics, Dr. Robin Schore, Dean of the Liberal Arts Division said the event “has a chilling effect on free speech.” Schore added, “It’s antithetical to free speech, free academia, and…America. The idea of having a police presence challenging a professor and taking him out of class is something seen in a police state. It’s outrageous.”

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Dmitry Gurvits
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