The NDSU Fencing Club’s biggest bout this year is not with an opponent but with a university weapons policy that prohibits them from practicing their sport on campus.
The club, which was started in the fall, recently gained full club status, but they remain restricted to practicing off campus.
Key pieces of equipment used in fencing are foils, sabers or epees, or sword-like pieces of equipment used to jab.
While the equipment and sport itself are safe, it’s not the safety of the sport that has campus officials worried about fencing being allowed on campus. School policy deems some of the equipment used in the sport as prohibited weapons.
Club members are not happy with the school policy and say their equipment should not be considered weapons at all.
NDSU computer systems engineer, Enrique Alvarez Vazquez, the Fencing Club’s adviser and master fencing coach said he doesn’t want the school to relax its weapons policy, but he wants to show the school that fencing equipment is not a weapon.
“I don’t understand why fencing equipment is considered a weapon, why is this equipment more dangerous than a baseball bat or a golf club?” he said.
He said the restriction might be the result of a misunderstanding about the equipment, which resembles a sword.
The club members said they understood they would not be able to meet on campus when they started the club but they are hoping for that to change. Alvarez Vazquez communicated with campus officials about the issue when the club was being started in the fall, but to no avail.
The club currently meets at Grace Lutheran School, a private pre-k through 8th grade school on 14th Avenue South and South University Drive in Fargo.[box type=”info”]What’s a foil, saber and an epee?
Foils, sabers or epees used in fencing are long, narrow sword-like pieces of equipment made of a flexible metal piece that has no sharp edges or a sharp point at the end. The point is a flat tip that has a small metal piece on it that registers when someone is poked with the end.[/box]
Their practices are apart of the club’s activities but club president, NDSU junior, Winfield Brand, said they are leeching off another organization’s practice time.
The club participates in the Fargo-Moorhead Fencing Club’s practices. Alvarez Vazquez is one of that club’s coaches.
Fencing Club member and NDSU senior Anna Kampa said the current situation isn’t very appealing to a lot of their prospective members since its off campus and they often have to practice with young teenagers.
“If we could meet on campus it would definitely make recruiting easier, we can’t grow a team if you can’t get to it,” Kampa said.
The F-M Fencing Club is an all ages club and the NDSU Club is grouped into an ages 12-and-up practice group.
The club has also seen dwindling memberships because of the campus prohibition. Bass said at one point they had about 30 members but now they have less than a dozen.
University Police and Safety Office Director Ray Boyer said the issue is not with the safety of the sport.
“I have no argument or disagreement with the safety aspects of fencing,” Boyer said. “That is not what is at issue here.
“What is more at issue is a society that has been conditioned to violent and often deadly behavior as a result of individuals’ use of weapons on campuses and in schools, that has led to a public reporting of these incidents with an expected police response to use deadly force to end the threat.”
Boyer pointed to the NDSU policy, which prohibits all sabers and swords on campus.
“Both NDSU Policy Manual 706, sub-section 4, and the Code of Student Behavior, specifically prohibit sabers and swords on campus,” Boyer said. “They are deemed weapons, and as such, possession or use on University owned or controlled property is prohibited.”
Boyer said he understands fencing is regulated but said the club is one of many that would like to have the opportunity to host their activities on campus.
He said there could also be a number of other individuals that feel, “because the university allows others to have their toy guns, swords, etc., on campus, that they as individuals should also be allowed to do so.”
He said the policy has been in place since 1990 as way for the university to control weapons on campus.
“In light of events involving the misuse of weapons on campuses and schools, the policy remains in place with no intention by my department to consider relaxing the conditions of the policy,” Boyer said.
The other issue the club faces is a negative perception of their sport.
“When the public sees someone displaying a sword in public in a hostile manner with another individual, it is reasonable for me to believe today that they would call police with an expectation that police respond with equal or greater force,” Boyer said.
He said the real problem is that school campuses are so open and vulnerable to acts of violence because they are soft targets.
“… Sometimes the safest way is simply to have no weapons, real or perceived, on campus,” Boyer said.”Our policies and codes help us provide that so when we do get a call, we respond with the seriousness the public now expects law enforcement to project in order to take command and control, knowing ‘weapons’ of any type are not authorized.”
But club members say they wouldn’t be walking around with their foils or epees exposed and they said they wouldn’t even use sabers, a more sword-looking piece of equipment sometimes used in the sport.
Bass said they also have bags to carry their equipment in and walking with the equipment would not arouse any suspicion that they were carrying anything dangerous anymore than carrying a baseball bag would.
Boyer said if there was a specific facility dedicated to activities like fencing and the university approved, the club may have a chance to practice on campus. But NDSU does not have that, he added.
There are also other clubs that are not allowed to practice on campus for the same reason the Fencing Club cannot, such as the marksmanship club and the paintball club.
The clubs are still recognized and supported and can meet on campus, given they aren’t practicing their activities with equipment the school deems weapons.
Student body vice president Hilary Haugeberg said the student government will still fund off-campus practices for those teams or clubs.
She said student government is required to follow campus policies and cannot make a decision to allow certain activities to take place on campus.
NDSU is not the only school in the area to have a Fencing Club. MSUM has a fencing club that meets on campus.
MSUM’s director of public safety, Greg Lemke, said his department has never had an issue with fencing on campus.
He said the equipment they use is for an educational purpose and said in his three years at the school, he as never heard anyone raise any concerns about it.
Fencing is not a new sport at NDSU but a revived one.
Alvarez Vazquez said there were other fencing clubs on campus that may have practiced on campus in the 80s and 90s but said he wasn’t sure what happened to them. He came to NDSU in 2006.
Alvarez Vazquez said he hopes there can be a compromise with the university. He said that a system where the club meets in a designated area and would require them to check their equipment into the police office while not practicing could be a solution.
The club is still trying to orient itself and has only been an official club with full status since March.
The club members have not approached Boyer or student government yet about their predicament but said they want to get more support for their club in order to bring it up with the appropriate parties.
Boyer said he will do some research on how other schools deal with this fencing issue.
“While I am not remotely suggesting we consider changing policy, I will pursue trying to gather information about how other campuses deal with this issue,” he said. “However, even then, any discussion or decision to consider a change to policy or code must be done with a bigger picture understanding of the risks involved to everyone.”