Last night, College Council (CC) voted 22–3 in favor of issuing a formal warning to Cap & Bells, the College’s only student-run theatre group, for 18 months. The warning will include an educational component, the nature of which CC has not yet clarified.
Prior to the CC meeting in Paresky Auditorium, the Office of Student Life (OSL) had sanctioned Cap & Bells by forbidding alcohol at its registered or unregistered events until July 2018. The sanction also requires the organization to add a clause to its constitution encouraging alcohol and bystander training for its members.
Before approving the formal warning, CC voted 20–5 to reject a recommendation from CC’s Student Organization Sanctions Committee (SOSC) for a censure. The censure would have prevented Cap & Bells from receiving funding during the subgroup allocation process and required the group to request supplemental funding, delaying budget submission by at least two weeks. SOSC brought the recommendation to CC after hearing charges brought against Cap & Bells by OSL regarding an incident on the evening of March 4. Two students at a party registered to Cap & Bells required hospitalization, according to the charges, one of whom was in a serious state of alcohol intoxication and required resuscitation.
Madeline Seidman ’17, Cap & Bell’s artistic director, registered the party in question as a basic event with no alcohol but was not in attendance due to medical reasons. According to the charges, 12 students attended the event, including one Cap & Bells board member, and hard alcohol was present. Attendees described the event as a cast party for a Cap & Bells performance.
According to CC bylaws, a formal warning serves as a mechanism by which CC can express disapproval of a student organization’s actions and “forestall future violations.” Though the administration has final say in disciplinary action, it does not appear likely to take such action. “The Dean’s Office did not take disciplinary action against Cap & Bells and did not initiate any process that would result in suspension of the organization,” Rachel Bukanc, senior associate dean of the College, said in an email.
Maria Fernanda Heredia ’20, chair of SOSC and vice president for student organizations, opened the meeting by stating that SOSC’s recommendation was based solely on the alcohol infraction.
“The case will be looked [at] under the disciplinary implications of the events of March 4,” she said, “and not on the organization’s moral or community impact. SOSC does not base [its] decision on the number of infractions but on the severity of the events in question.”
In the time allotted for open comment, several members of Cap & Bells argued that the censure was not a fair punishment for an umbrella organization with 100 to 200 members, including all students who have participated in a performance. Others argued that a censure would stifle Cap & Bells’ financial ability to put on plays, violate the spirit of medical amnesty rules and disproportionately harm a space for students of identities traditionally marginalized on campus.
Devyn Hebert ’17, general manager of Cap & Bells, said that a censure would significantly impact funding, as play rehearsals cannot begin before the organizations has purchased the rights. As a result, delaying funding by two weeks would cut significantly into Cap & Bells’ fall season.
Robert Hefferon ’18, technical director of Cap & Bells, pointed out that the College’s “Code of Conduct” extends medical amnesty to student organizations as well as individuals. Medical amnesty grants protection from disciplinary action to an individual or group that seeks medical attention for themselves or another person.
“Disobeying the existing medical amnesty policy destroys students’ faith in the system,” Hefferon said, “and decreases the chance that students in other organizations will alert CSS of unsafe incidents involving alcohol in the future.”
CC co-President Web Farabow ’18 informed the audience that CC is not bound by medical amnesty. Various council members, however, argued that CC should follow the spirit of the policy, so as not to discourage groups from registering parties and calling for help in the future.
Cap & Bells supporters, as well as members of CC, also argued that the issue was fundamentally an issue of diversity and equality.
“… [A censure] will further marginalize communities such as queer students and students of color,” Shanti Hossain ’19 said. “This isn’t a question of how the College deals with alcohol abuse, but a question of how College Council is going to be complicit in an institutional culture that decides who gets in trouble for what and how … this [censure] will work against the interests of marginalized students and for the interests of those groups already prioritized by the school.”
During the time allotted for CC discussion, members debated the enforcement role of Council and the extent to which the final decision should take into account Cap & Bells’ impact on campus, as well as its organizational structure.
“This is not what we usually do,” acknowledged Ben Gips ’19, vice president for student affairs. “It’s a very different context … usually we’re dealing with cultural changes and policies that will benefit students, not in an enforcement role. It’s not natural to me, I don’t think it’s natural to many of us, but we have to do it.”
Michael Rubel ’19, vice president for communications, read from section D, “Disciplinary Powers,” in CC’s bylaws.
“[The section] says that in protecting the interests of the community, the Council has the right to initiate disciplinary action,” he said. “I think ‘protecting the interests of the community’ is really the key phrase there. We can’t look at this in a vacuum.”
Former CC President Caitlin Buckley ’17 pointed out that CC traditionally used censures in cases of offenses that were financial in nature.
SOSC is an ad-hoc CC committee, the members of which are anonymous, that pursues disciplinary action against student organizations that violate the stipulations listed in the Williams Student Handbook, CC policies or both. SOSC is mandated to hear charges brought against CC-affiliated organizations from students, staff or faculty.
The charges against Cap & Bells were intended to remain confidential, but members of the organization publicized the potential censure over Facebook to galvanize support.
Seidman acknowledged that the leadership of Cap & Bells, including herself, was taking responsibility for the incident.
“Our organization doesn’t condone this kind of behavior,” she said, “and we’ll be strict about alcohol use in our community in the future.”
Following the incident, she was called in to testify in front of SOSC along with a witness from the party. She referred to the questioning as “aggressive.” According to her, SOSC members made unverified claims, such as accusing Cap & Bells of using admission money from shows to purchase alcohol, and the report that she received from the committee included statements to which she and the witness had not testified.
“The report … said, ‘given the precedent that hard alcohol is acceptable in the organization’s social spaces,’ which neither of us testified to,” said Seidman. “We both felt intimidated, misled and ultimately misquoted.”
She said the members of Cap & Bells tried to convey in the CC meeting that the organization’s social structure is grounded in its theatre work, not in alcohol consumption. “[Our work] has created such an incredible community for so many people,” she said. “We’re really happy that won’t be dampened in any way, and we’re going to take the OSL probation and formal warning’s educational component very seriously.”