Between a Rock and a High Place
The toughest part about being a resident adviser might not be the work itself -- acting as students' guide, muse and de facto event planner -- or even the hours on call late at night. It could be the nature of the role, which asks those who fill it to gain their residents' trust while at the same time enforcing rules they know are often broken.
That's traditionally been the case with underage drinking in dormitories as well as other campus life policies, such as noise regulations and visitation rules. Drugs fall into this category too. Since substance abuse has greater legal consequences for students, it is this issue that can create conflict for RAs, who are required at many campuses to call the police when they smell marijuana or believe students to be using the drug.
At the University of Maryland at College Park, recent student pressure has raised questions about RAs' role in enforcing campus marijuana policy. Beginning in the fall of 2006, initiatives in the Student Government Association as well as the campus Residence Hall Association group led administrators to seriously reconsider their policies for dorm drug use -- especially marijuana -- by reducing some cases to a minor violation.
This semester, the campus chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy began circulating a letter to RA's, dated Oct. 1, which stated, "Did you know that according to the Department of Resident Life, you are not required to call the police when handling situations in which marijuana use is suspected in the residence halls?"
That prompted a competing letter from the administration, which reminded RA's of university policy. They "definitely do not have the option of not reporting [marijuana use], and in point of fact, where we have come to over the years is RA's routinely involve the police if they think they’re looking at a drug situation," said Steve Petkas, the associate director for student and staff development at Resident Life.
Despite the push for lesser sanctions on marijuana use, the administration backed away from any major rule changes but did leave the door open for some discretion in determining punishments. For example, for cases of possession in small amounts, the standard sanction is the student's removal from campus housing for a year, although the severity can be challenged in the appeals process. The traditional loss of housing typically comes with a suspension, unless a student agrees to two years of drug testing.
Now, considerations normally reserved for appeal have been shifted to the initial decision process, conducted by community directors in dormitories. In practice, that could mean the reduction of some sanctions to a semester of no campus housing, or even a slap on the wrist.
Students who oppose the university's policy tend to compare marijuana to alcohol, pointing out that underage drinking is also illegal but that the consequences for each can be vastly different.
"Alcohol ... is an ever-present issue. However, our RA's are instructed to 'pour out' alcohol into the nearest receptacle if found in possession of it on campus, regardless of their age," said Anastacia Cosner, the president of Students for Sensible Drug Policy on campus, in an e-mail. "While if they suspect marijuana use, police are called immediately, opening the floodgates for a slew of overly harsh and long-reaching sanctions."
Petkas said the policy is for RA's to accompany students to the bathroom and watch them pour out their own drinks. Part of the difference, he said, is that marijuana can be detected by smell, yet that is no indication as to how many students are using it behind closed doors and what privacy issues might be at stake.
"People usually aren’t toking up and making a heck of a lot of noise," he said. For alcohol, that is all too often the case so that RA's can "get a sense of how many people you’re dealing with."
Yet that still leaves RA's in the position of calling the police on their residents for a crime whose punishment they may not agree with. Petkas acknowledged that a minority of resident advisers might look the other way: "Do I think that’s the norm? No. Do I think that’s occasional? ... Sure."
But he pointed out that in the past two years, the university had handled 92 drug cases in which a student had been found responsible. "We haven’t had a shortage of drug cases that we’ve been handling through our judicial process," he said.
One RA at Maryland, who wanted to remain anonymous, explained how he and some of his fellow advisers think about the issue. In a Facebook message, he wrote: "In fact, I'm an RA, not a cop, I do not like the policing aspect of being an RA. If the essence of being an RA is to build community while maintaining a safe and clean environment, then as long as the activity is not detrimental to those principles, then I don't care. Over policing on my part would quite hypocritical; I am a college student just as much as I am an RA."
Cosner, in her e-mail, also framed it in terms of an RA's position over his or her residents.
"... I think that is an unfair position for RA's to be put in as well as an unfair amount of power distributed to 18-, 19-, 20-year-old resident [advisers] who, at the onset of the odor of marijuana, could significantly impact or ruin a student's collegiate and post-collegiate life," she said.