CA Fired for Claimed Negligence, Alleges Wrongful Termination

CA Shoshanna Peifer ’23 assisted a drunk Smith College student on Morris Pratt quad on Sunday, Sept. 12. Five days later, Peifer was fired. Peifer and her coworkers suspect that her involvement with the student workers’ union played a factor in her firing.

Just past midnight on Sunday, Sept. 12, Community Advisor (CA) Shoshanna Peifer ’23 assisted a drunk Smith College student on Morris Pratt quad. Five days later, Peifer was fired.

The official reasons given for Peifer’s termination were for “delaying a Five College student’s access to medical care on campus” and “lack of cooperation with staff responding to the incident,” per an email Director of Residential Life (ResLife) Andrea Cadyma sent to Peifer on Sept. 17. Peifer’s coworkers believe that the college had ulterior motives for terminating her employment, particularly Peifer’s involvement with the Union of Student Workers at Amherst College (USWAC).

Following her firing, Peifer was left unemployed and was forced to move residence halls.

Peifer’s Side of the Story

The reasoning given by Cadyma did not align with Peifer’s recollection of events. In a message to the CA GroupMe, Peifer recounted how she and a friend had happened across two women on the Morris Pratt Quad when Peifer was not on duty: One of the individuals was laying down and intermittently throwing up. The other, who stood to her friend’s side, told Peifer that the two were not in need of medical assistance. In response, Peifer told the two that she needed to “check if the [women] had medical amnesty” and stated that she would not call Amherst Emergency Medical Services (ACEMS) before she had checked with the Administrator On Call (AOC). Because the AOC wasn’t aware if Smith students received medical amnesty, Peifer initially declined ACEMS assistance. However, she phoned ACEMS after her friend, an off-duty ACEMS member, recommended that they do so.

ACEMS arrived to assist the student, but tensions heightened when members of the Amherst College Police Department (ACPD) arrived on scene. Peifer recalled telling an officer, “You might want to back up,” when she noticed that the sick student was getting uncomfortable. It is this request, Peifer believes, that led her to earn the charge of “refusing to cooperate with staff responding to the incident.”

The Smith student was also a person of color, which influenced Peifer’s decision to speak to the officer. “I [was] a bit uncomfortable with him leaning over her considering the state she’s in and identities involved,” said Peifer.

Fellow CA Molly Sanderson ’22 applauded Peifer’s actions: “To me, that feels like a very reasonable response. [Peifer was] protecting an emotional student who was in a vulnerable time and probably didn't need a police officer encroaching on her space.”

Residential Life’s Statement

In an email to The Student, Cadyma said that “personnel matters are confidential, so [she] can’t comment on any specific cases.” However, she noted that Residential Life is “committed to continuing to provide opportunities for CAs to provide feedback and to implementing adjustments wherever feasible.”

Peifer’s Involvement with the Union of Student Workers

Peifer is a prominent member of the USWAC. Although the group is moving away from a hierarchical structure, Peifer, along with Sanderson and CA Ella Peterson ’22, are “outspoken” members and organizers within the USWAC, according to multiple CAs.

The USWAC, which officially launched its campaign last spring, maintains that its founding values are “protecting the students who work for ResLife, protecting the people that they protect and interact with, and just making this job a little bit better every year,” Sanderson reported.

After its founding, the USWAC and ResLife butted heads. Tensions were especially high at the beginning of the Fall 2021 semester when CAs strongly objected to the suggested presence of Campus Safety Ambassadors (CSAs) in dorms.

Given Peifer’s strong influence in these student groups, Peterson and other CAs have speculated that Peifer’s termination has more to do with her involvement in the USWAC than the circumstances surrounding the events that took place on Sept. 12.

Peifer agrees. “As a CA, I had been actively unionizing,” she said. “They knew this. I had been outspoken about our work conditions. And I'm one of the younger people unionizing on the E-board of the Union, and they knew that everyone else was going to age out and I had another year,” she said.

Sanderson communicated in an interview with The Student, “If [Peifer’s] firing had anything to do with her outspokenness towards and sometimes against ResLife, that should be concerning to everyone on this staff and everyone at this college.”

A Deviation from Normal CA Termination Procedures

In the week between the incident and Peifer’s firing, Peifer remained living in Mayo-Smith House, where she operates as a CA. This is Peifer’s second year on the ResLife staff.

On the following Monday, ResLife reached out to Peifer, who asked to schedule a meeting for that Friday, Sept. 17. In the meeting, Community Development Coordinator (CDC) Megan Markland-Hassinger and Cadyma informed Peifer that the ACPD officer present on scene claimed that she yelled, “No one wants you here.” They also alleged Peifer had waited too long to call ACEMS, and informed her that she was terminated.

Typically, CAs are given a warning and then put on probation when they violate their agreements with Residential Life. However, the contract contains one caveat: “Staff may be removed from their position at the discretion of the Director of Residential Life, regardless of the outcome of a conduct process, if it’s determined that the CA exhibited behavior that compromises their ability to perform their duties and or misused their power or influence.”

Peifer was given neither a warning nor probation.

“In the story as we understand it, there's a full week where ResLife seemingly doesn't do anything,” said Peterson. “To me, that's really strange. Because if the thought is that this is a violation so severe that it falls into this other category, so much so that it needs to be immediate, why is there a week delay?”

Peterson doesn’t agree that Peifer’s actions are a severe violation — far from it. “In some ways she was so epitomizing what it means to be a CA in this community: taking care of people who you are not really responsible for — she's not working in her official capacity, she sees someone in trouble and tries to offer help to the best of her ability,” she said.

“While I'm willing to allow that perhaps that was a procedural thing of how you really have to call ACEMS first, that’s a conversation with your boss about how to handle it for the next time. That’s not a ‘you’re fired immediately,’” Peterson expressed.

“It’s setting a very strange — particularly Shoshanna’s firing — is setting a very strange precedent that makes me pretty uncomfortable, to be honest,” said Peterson.

Ongoing Tensions between CAs and ResLife

Tensions between CAs and ResLife are running high, but that’s nothing new according to Peterson.

“There's a long standing reality of a lot of tension between student-staff and full-time staff within ResLife,” Peterson said. “And that's not specifically tensions between specific people and their specific supervisors, it’s just generally more administrative, structure-based versus boots-on-the-ground tension between our understandings of what the school needs and how the school is best served.”

And when this relationship is between the administration and a student worker who, like Peifer, identifies as low income, tensions increase and their impacts become more pressing, students reported.

For Peifer, the loss of the CA paycheck has life-changing implications. CAs are paid $5,000 a year, an increase from $4,400 that was facilitated by the USWAC in the spring. “For a student like me, who uses my ResLife paycheck to pay my student loans, it's really scary to think that if I do something like be too outspoken in meetings, or even if I do a little procedural thing in trying to care for people wrong, I could be cut off from that paycheck,” commented Peterson.

In Peifer’s situation, power dynamics emerged in multiple facets. Students have long complained that ACPD arrival at medical calls only escalates already stressful situations, particularly when those needing care hold marginalized identities.

“I believe that she was acting in the best interest of the [sick] student, which should be transparent to everyone looking at the situation who knows a thing about power, privilege and oppression,” said an anonymous CA. This CA wished to remain anonymous because of previous clashes that they have had with ResLife. The anonymous source fears speaking out against their employer.

CAs are specifically taught to consider power, privilege and oppression during their training.“I was surprised how much of a gap there was between what ResLife said was important to them, which is understanding [power, privilege and oppression] and acting around them, versus what they themselves do,” said the same anonymous CA.

“If I would have just walked over this girl on the ground who had thrown up and just gone back to my dorm, and then just been like, whatever, she'll figure it out, I would still have my job,” said Peifer. “I'm a low income student, and I would still have that source of income.”

Going forward, the USWAC will have to grapple with what Peifer’s firing means for student-staff at the college.

“We've always been aware of the need to be protective of the people who work for us, and I think this is just going to move this higher onto our priority list as we look at contracts for next year,” said Peterson.

Peifer’s Current Status

As of Oct. 17, Peifer is living in a Greenway dorm that she was given a week to relocate to after being fired. She has not been reinstated as a CA.

As of Oct. 16, the second floor of Mayo-Smith has also not been given a new CA.

“I went in last night with a friend to bring her home [to Mayo-Smith], and things were ripped down, beer cans were everywhere,” said Peifer on Oct. 17.

Following her firing, Peifer underwent a separate Code of Conduct hearing with the college where she was not found guilty of any violations. However, Cadyma and ResLife say their decision is final.