Editorial: College guidelines on parties, and CSS enforcement of them, imply control, not safety

Editorial Board

In recent weeks, students have reported an increase in the presence of Campus Safety Services (CSS) in residential halls during weekend evenings. While Director of CSS Eric Sullivan claims that there has been no change in policy and that CSS takes action only in response to complaints from students and community members, students have described CSS officers breaking up on-campus parties without reasonable justification.

CSS officers should not be in our dorms unprompted. Monitoring us in our living spaces violates the only real sphere of privacy we have on a small, residential campus. It foments uncertainty about whether and when we can gather without fear of discipline and — after 18 months of isolation — discourages us from forming the social connections that are core to college life.

Indeed, the College notes in the most recent draft of its long-term Strategic Plan that, in shaping residential life, the “last thing we should do is overdetermine students’ lives.” Instead, the Plan continues, the College should develop an approach to residential life that values “the pleasures of unstructured moments, friendship, joy and exploration.” It is difficult to reconcile these apparent goals with CSS action that over-regulates student behavior.

In explaining CSS’s practices, Sullivan has pointed to the “hot spot” policy detailed in the College’s Responsible Party Standards, which were adopted in 2015. Sullivan said that areas are designated as “hot spots” only after repeated student complaints; the Standards define them as areas “that have exhibited patterns of unsafe/irresponsible behaviors.” The Standards also limit unregistered gatherings to 20 people and note that CSS officers, while conducting hot spot checks, will report any unregistered parties they come across to the deans’ office.

To begin with, the 20-person gathering limit for unregistered parties is unreasonably low. The reality of social life in a residential college is that impromptu gatherings will often grow larger than 20 students. “Unstructured” social interactions can hardly occur if students are asked to register all such gatherings in advance. When the 20-person limit is paired with strict enforcement through CSS hot spot checks, the Standards effectively ban the majority of spontaneous social gatherings outside of one’s immediate circle of friends.

For students who do choose to register their parties, the process is inefficient and opaque. Parties must be registered 24 hours in advance and, in practice, the registration of a party does not provide any guarantee that CSS will not show up unprompted. Registered parties also sometimes require students to hire a professional host using their own money, adding another financial barrier to accessing social life on campus.

CSS presence in dorms particularly affects whether marginalized students feel a sense of belonging in their living spaces. As we noted in an editorial last semester, Black and Brown students have in recent years recounted experiences of bias in encounters with CSS, especially when they are in private settings such as dorms. On Saturday night, CSS entered Rice House, which is intended to be an affinity space for Black students, and broke up a gathering of students that was not registered. While CSS claims that the gathering violated capacity limits, some students who spoke to the Record said it did not. Regardless, the forcing of students out of the Davis Center, which the College advertises as a welcoming space for students of marginalized identities, underscores the particular toll that CSS’s disruption of student social life can take on Black and Brown students.

By entering residential halls and breaking up parties, CSS has also led students to move to parties off campus. College staff do not have access to off-campus houses; as a result, protections for students against unsafe behaviors, including drink tampering, are weaker at these parties.

Moreover, because the costs of off-campus housing are not covered by the College’s financial aid, wealthier students have easier access to off-campus housing. The practical effect of routinely breaking up on-campus parties is to allow wealthier, off-campus students to host parties without CSS interference — and to invite their friends to these gatherings — while leaving other students with few spaces to gather without interference.

The College’s own Strategic Plan recognizes that students need unmonitored spaces where they can develop social connections and relieve stress outside of the constant demands of the school week. To protect student privacy and promote equity, CSS should stop entering dorms when not responding to a specific complaint, and the College should amend the Responsible Party Standards to allow students to gather in larger groups without having to formally register a party.

This college is our home for four years. We deserve to feel at home here. And it’s hard to do that if CSS interferes with social gatherings in our private living spaces.

This editorial represents the opinion of the majority of the Record editorial board.

Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated that the College does not cover the cost of off-campus housing for students on financial aid. The College does provide financial aid recipients living off-campus with rent and food budgets.