Hiring students to replace guards may violate federal rules

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The Indianapolis Museum of Art's plan to employ 100 students through a federally funded work-study program is on hold, pending a compliance review by IUPUI.

The IMA announced on Monday that it would institute a new security program that includes the use of IUPUI students filling the role of "visitor assistants." Also on Monday, the museum fired 33 full-time and 23 part-time security guards. The changes are part of a revamped security program that includes enhanced electronic surveillance and adding 14 reserve police officers who will patrol the museum complex.

Education Department rules say students in the work-study program can work at businesses, government agencies and not-for-profits, but they can't be used to displace existing employees. IUPUI spokesman Rich Schneider said the university is responsible for compliance.  "The museum's position is that this program it announced doesn't displace," he said. "That's what the review is about."

In the meantime, IMA spokeswoman Katie Zarich said the museum will continue to use visitor assistants and cover 100 percent of their $10-per-hour wage.

"We're hoping to get it resolved as quickly as possible," Zarich said.

According to the IMA's Monday press release, the visitor assistants will "provide increased security and enhanced customer service, while reducing costs associated with security." The museum said on Monday that its new security model would save $600,000 a year. The visitor assistants would earn $10 per hour, but the museum would pay only 25 percent of that amount. The security guards who were eliminated earned on average $11.50 per hour.

In a letter to museum staff on Thursday, CEO Maxwell Anderson explained how the role of "visitor assistants" differs from that of security guards who were let go.

"The role of visitor assistants is primarily to focus on customer service," Anderson said. "The visitor assistants are trained ambassadors of the museum experience; they are posted throughout museum galleries and the rest of the campus. They receive training about the museum's permanent collection and its special exhibitions in order to better answer visitor questions."

Anderson said in his e-mail that the IMA had recruited students with various language skills, and that many are pursuing careers in art history or museum studies. "Their involvement with public safety is the same as that for any staff member, volunteer, or visitor: if you see a problem, alert someone of authority."

The museum has been working with IUPUI's work-study office for some time on the new security program and the role of students. Neither Schneider nor Zarich could explain why the university would decide at this point to review compliance.

In his letter to staff, Anderson blamed news coverage.

"Unfortunately, media coverage insinuating that the visitor assistants were a direct swap out for former security staff has brought undue attention to this program," he said.

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