We at the Record have always defended Williams College’s admirable history of student autonomy and self-governance in personal and residential life. However, we endorse the actions taken by college security last Friday night. Given that this is a controversial, largely unpopular view to take, especially as students, we would like to explain our stance.
Drinking has always been and presumably will always be a part of the social life at Williams. What happened Friday night though was not simply a matter of drinking, but more importantly an issue of personal responsibility.
For many students, college is the first time that we are on our own and learning how to make responsible decisions outside our homes. At college we make these decisions within the context of a residential community that provides a sphere of autonomy for any number of personal issues, but above all else works to protect the safety of its members. Without a basic modicum of personal safety – and a non-lethal blood alcohol level qualifies – the entire issue of individual rights and personal responsibility becomes senseless. On Friday, college security worked to provide this necessary modicum of personal safety.
Given the situation with two first-year students in ambulances on the way to the North Adams Regional Hospital, we feel that the College had no choice but to take the unprecedented action of sweeping first-year entries. Security was right in going room by room to make sure that no other first-year students needed hospitalization. In this very specific case, the lives of first-year students were at stake. In such cases, personal autonomy gives way to immediate and real health risks.
Although the basic philosophy behind the sweeps was sound, the way in which they were carried out may have been flawed. We have heard reports that officers went as far as opening refrigerators as a part of the search process. Indeed, security should have been attempting to prevent further alcohol abuse, but there are often clear situations where no one is drinking. In these situations, it is in no one’s best interest for security to take time to confiscate alcohol. A quick but thorough sweep of the dorms, however, would have been in everyone’s best interest. Once this sweep was completed, security could have assessed the situation and decided on the best course of action. While sweeping dorms in such a specific situation helps protect individual safety, spending time pouring out alcohol in closed containers does not.
Despite our sympathetic understanding of the actions taken by security Friday night, we emphatically implore the College to not make security sweeps a regular feature for first-years, or any students for that matter. Institutionalizing sweeps would result in less personal autonomy, less personal responsibility and weaken the trust between security and students that is so important in our residential college community. Such sweeps would only heighten animosity between students and security.
The JAs have been discussing this situation during the past few days, and trying to come to grips with what to do when such instances arise. These conversations need to continue and be expanded. Students need to know security’s reasons for the sweeps, security and the administration need to appreciate students’ reservations. And these conversations need to culminate in an open and understandable college-wide policy that will outline the protocol when such serious instances arise. The issues of personal responsibility and community life deserve no less.