Keeping a Close Watch on Students

At Rhode Island, students protest rules on off-campus conduct; at George Washington, students object to dorm searches.
October 18, 2005

Some students at the University of Rhode Island admit that the institution may have had some out-of-control off-campus parties in the past, but they aren’t happy about policy changes that extend the university judicial system beyond campus.

About 150 students rallied Monday in protest of university policy changes that will allow students who live off-campus – as a majority do – to be referred to the university judicial system for things that happen outside campus borders.

Fran Cohen, dean of students and chair of the Student Rights and Responsibilities Committee, a combination of students, faculty and staff members, said the changes will make it easier “to protect those in the university community, regardless of their address.”

Officials said that the university receives arrest reports from nearby police departments, and would take action if a student is arrested multiple times, or thought to “pose a threat to the safety of self or others,” the policy reads. In the past, Rhode Island’s student-conduct policies only extended off-campus at official university functions.

“If it’s 10 people on a deck making noise, we’re probably not going to get involved,” said Tom Dougan, vice president for student affairs. “A party with underage drinking, fights, destruction of property, we’re probably going to get involved.”

Dougan is also co-chair of the Narragansett-URI Coalition,  a group of community members, police officers, and university officials begun about five years ago “in response to concerns raised in the local community about increased college student alcohol use and related consequences in the Narragansett community,” according to the group’s Web site. Narragansett is the most popular off-campus spot for students.

Gary Pavela, director of Judicial Programs at the University of Maryland at College Park and an expert on campus judicial systems, said institutions should tread lightly when extending policies off campus. He said that “treating students like children eventually induces them to behave like children,” and added that universities sometimes find themselves taking on an enforcement role they aren’t prepared for as communities demand more and more involvement. “Administrators have to keep in mind that they're first priority is to manage educational institutions, not police departments,” he said. Rhode Island officials noted that most of the university’s peer institutions have policies that extend off campus to varying degrees.

Dougan said the policy change was something the coalition wanted. Students, however, are not represented on the coalition, and were upset over their role in designing the policy changes. The 12 member Student Rights and Responsibilities Committee has four students, all of whom opposed the changes and raised objections last year when the changes came before the Faculty Senate. The Senate decided to hold off on voting. But earlier this month it passed all but one of the changes unanimously, and those that passed unanimously were approved by president Robert L. Carothers, who barred alcohol from campus a decade ago. After the vote was postponed last year, students on the committee thought they were going to have a chance to discuss the changes again before they were voted on. Jesse Whitsitt Lynch, a student on the committee, said he was surprised that Cohen resubmitted the changes without committee discussion, and said “this time the Faculty Senate was unresponsive. The entire process took 15 minutes, with almost no debate. We felt like window dressing by the end.”

At the protest, some students complained that they can now get in trouble with the university for a traffic ticket in another state. “The idea that the university is going to take action against a student because they get a speeding ticket in Ohio is pretty silly,” Dougan said.

But many students aren’t thrilled at the prospect of trusting the discretion of an administration they feel left them out of the end of the process. Micah Daigle, a member of the URI Student Rights Coalition, noted that over 500 students signed a petition of protest, and that students from all corners of campus, including both the College Democrats and College Republicans, among 16 other groups, joined the coalition.

Students living on campus might have some new concerns too. One of the policy changes makes dorm-room searches easier. Resident advisors can now enter a student’s room without their consent if the advisor has “concrete evidence” of a violation.

And Rhode Island students might not be the only ones hiding their candles. George Washington University hired an outside company, HRH Risk Mitigation, Inc., to conduct five unannounced searches of every room on-campus per calendar year. Officials said the main goal is to rid rooms of fire hazards by confiscating halogen lamps, candles, and incense and donating them to local charities. A fire last March caused by a George Foreman grill helped propel the new system which Nancy Haaga, director for auxiliary and institutional services, said is “an issue of manpower. We didn’t have enough trained staff to cover every room.”

As is the case at Rhode Island, George Washington inspectors are not supposed to turn the place upside down, though they can begin to pry if they see unsanitary or dangerous things, and if they find drugs or alcohol, they will notify campus police. “If you had  a George Foreman grill tucked between your mattress, you’re not going to find it,” said Tracy Schario, a university spokeswoman.

Ben Traverse, a senior and member of the student government said some students have been complaining. Traverse said he thinks the university does have a right to search, but “not to take stuff out of your room. You sign a  license agreement…and nowhere in there does it ever use word confiscate or seize, just ‘inspect.’” 


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