From job transition to new safety developments, Tom Sonoff shares all

Have you been curious what a college campus security office has been up to since the crowds at Clackamas Community College have been lower than ever? The Clackamas Print had the chance to catch up with the college’s head of security, Tom Sonoff, to find out how things have changed for him and what we can expect when we return to campus after over a year.

The Clackamas Print

Can you tell me who you are and what you do at Clackamas Community College?

Tom Sonoff

My name is Tom Sonoff and I am the Director of College Safety for Clackamas Community College. I have 30 years of experience in municipal law enforcement. I retired as a Chief of Police in 2012. I went to work for Concordia University in Irvine, California as their Director of College Safety. I was there for four years and decided to move to Oregon. When I came to Oregon, I was hired by Clackamas County to set up their student Threat Assessment Program in the K-12 system, and that project lasted about a year. And once we had that program up and running, the position of Director of Client Safety came available at CCC. And I really liked working on campuses, so I was interested in the position and I applied and was ultimately hired.

TCP

How has COVID-19 changed your day to day activities and duties?

Sonoff

In March of 2020 when the school had to really kind of shut down face-to-face classes and move to online learning, President Cook came to me and asked me to chair a workgroup working on the college’s response to COVID, to the pandemic, developing a safety plan for employees needed to work on campus, and eventually working on a plan for bringing folks back on the campus once the pandemic had improved. So over the past year, I’ve worked with the workgroup we put together — the return to campus plan — you’ve probably seen it on the website. We put together a plan where instructors that wanted to hold face-to-face classes would have to fill out an application and explain to us how they were going to safely run these classes. Then it was up to us to approve the classes to be face-to-face. So, in addition, I’m also CCC’s direct contact with Clackamas County Public Health, so anytime we have somebody that tests positive for COVID, or is exposed to somebody that has tested positive, or has any kind of connection to the college, I work with the county to let them know. And in certain cases, I help them collect data for contact tracing. So as you can see, my job has radically changed in the last year from strictly just managing the college Safety Department to still having those duties but also taking on this COVID work also.

TCP

You hinted at some of the plans for returning to campus, can you highlight some key points?

Sonoff

About a month ago, President Cook announced a new work group that is going to be focusing on how we reopen and bring more classes back to campus, how we’re going to bring more activities back to campus. So that new workgroup is actually being headed up by Vice President David Plotkin. And we’ve met I think two or three times and have just begun the discussions of what it will look like when we slowly bring more classes back and what it will look like when we approve more activities that come back to campus. I think everybody would like to think by the fall term that we may not fully be back, but at least back a lot more than we are now. But, you know, we’re having to keep an eye on the infection rates. If you’ve probably kept up with it in the media. Infection rates in Oregon have gone up again. Clackamas County was just returned to the extreme risk category. So we continue to do our work to see how we can best bring folks back to campus. But there’s a lot of unknowns.

TCP

What kind of changes do you think returning students could potentially see other than masking and social distancing?

Sonoff

Social distancing is going to be a lot of it, you’re going to see a lot more signage on campus, reminding folks that they need to be wearing face coverings, reminding people about social distancing, you’re gonna see a lot more signage on campus that talks about things like hand washing. Things like limited occupancy in elevators, and directional signs. Maybe you go up the staircase and you come down another staircase. So you’re going to see a lot of things like that. A lot of changes along those lines, you’re going to see reduced number of students in a classroom, we can’t put as many students in a classroom as previous because we have to ensure that we maintain that physical distancing for everyone, especially in classes that have labs; that’s really important in classes, especially where students are working maybe on a project together, or they’re moving around the classroom, and maybe in a lab type situation. So we have to be very careful how many people we actually put in a physical space, it makes complete sense.

TCP

What about for new students? How can they prepare to join campus for the first time?

Sonoff

From online, so it’s gonna be interesting for them also. But I think probably the best thing to do is continually check on the college website, especially under the COVID page, because we try to update that with new information that comes out from public health, but not new restrictions or new guidelines. also read the return to campus plan. It’s been on the website, quite a while we continually updated, that it gives really good information on things like, what exactly is a face covering? Because a lot of people have a different definition of what a face covering is. Our return plan, it tells exactly what a face covering is. It tells exactly how you have to wear the face covering. So I think those two things, continually check the website, and read the return to campus plan. I tell folks, you know, send me an email if you have a question. And I get up all the time, I get emails on a daily basis asking me questions about it, I’ll tell you some typical questions I get right now about vaccinations. “I’ve been vaccinated. Does that mean I have to wear a mask if I’ve been vaccinated? And I’ve been exposed to somebody with COVID, does that mean I have to quarantine?” So I encourage people to send me an email and ask me the question. I’ll be more than happy to help people out. But watching the website, reading the return to campus plan, and I’m sure with new students coming with a new term starting, I’m sure. Our student services folks are going to be putting a lot of more information out of what students should expect.

TCP

Given general campus safety and what has been going on in the world within the last year, have you had to develop any kind of new safety plans and protocols to help keep staff and students safe? 

Sonoff

General gun violence? Protests? Things like that? Yeah, you know, we really haven’t changed very much. I don’t think we’ve changed any of our procedures when it comes to any type of violence on campus. Are you aware of the CCC Care Team? This is a multidisciplinary group of individuals on our campus. We come together on a weekly basis, to discuss situations where we may have somebody that’s exhibiting some type of violent behavior or threatening behavior, or just might be suffering, having some type of hardship on this group comes together and tries to provide wraparound services to these individuals, to help them through whatever crisis they’re going through. So, membership in that team is, myself, I represent college safety, we have people from our counseling department for mental health purposes there, and we have people on there from student services. We’ve handled cases where students may have made a threat to another student or to another individual. We’ve helped out in situations where students are experiencing homelessness, food insecurity, things like that, but this group comes together to try to handle problems, before they become a major issue before we see any kind of type violence on our campus. So that is something that’s been ongoing for years at the college, and it’s a very effective way to keep the college safe. As far as our officers, our procedures have not changed a lot. We’re still pretty vigilant on campus about responding if we get a call where somebody may be exhibiting maybe some kind of violent behavior or some kind of mental health issue. But as far as changing policies, we really haven’t changed policies. And as you can imagine, the campus has been pretty empty for the last year. You know, we have a handful of classes taking place, we have a handful of employees working, but it’s been pretty quiet on campus. Probably the main group of people my college safety officers work with right now is we have a homeless population that lives on our campus. And from time to time we get calls, or we have interaction with our homeless population to deal with different issues involving that group. But as far as any kind of gun violence or anything like that, we haven’t seen any, you know, knock on wood. I think we’re pretty safe campuses here. We’re pretty fortunate in that respect. And we have a good group of officers that really, really take it personally to keep people safe on our campus.

TCP

Would you consider that advice to somebody who might be a little apprehensive, getting back into crowds?

Sonoff

I think my only advice to people is coming back to campus, once we start coming back and there’s more people around, as far as the COVID part of it, just follow the very simple recommendations that are out there wear a face covering, make sure you maintain that distance, and get a vaccination when you can. If you’re sick, stay home, if you get sick while you’re on campus, go home. So as far as that COVID part of it, those are the recommendations I would continue to make to anyone. As far as anything along the lines of gun violence or anything like that and being in crowds, again, we’re very fortunate on our campuses, our crime rates are extremely low on all three of our campuses. So I don’t think it’s anything that somebody has to be concerned about. People should be aware of their surroundings, no matter where they’re at, on campus, or if they’re at the mall, wherever they’re at. If they see something that seems suspicious, give college safety a calling. You know, if there’s an emergency taking place in front of you, dial 911. But I think folks can come to our campus with a lot of confidence that they’re going to be safe on our campuses.

TCP

Any last thoughts you’d like to share?

Tom

I’m just looking forward to the day we can all get back. Get back so you all can see what it’s like on campus. Yeah, just looking forward to that day. And like I said, hopefully, hopefully with vaccinations rolling out and you know, people being a little careful when they’re around other folks. Hopefully, it’ll get better pretty soon.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.