Privacy not a luxury when living in student housing
Published: Sunday, July 8, 2012
Updated: Monday, August 27, 2012 16:08
Credit cards. Loan agreements. Renters insurance. For many college students these are the first contracts they sign. Some may be taken for granted while others play out on a daily basis. But one that might oft get overlooked is a University code of conduct or a student housing guide. Implicit contracts in dealing with a University that has its own rights.
When the The DePaulia ran an article about students stealing CTA route maps for sport in April, DePaul University waited two weeks and then did a full scale search using resident assistants and resident directors to look through on campus housing rooms for the stolen materials. The school uncovered more than 200 maps and a lot of surprised reactions at the university’s use of its search clause.
When the school was asked about its reaction to the article and the revelation of the possibility of stolen property, they referenced sections of the Terms and Conditions for Lincoln Park 2011-2012 as well as the housing guide—contracts students participate in when using University facilities.
The condition in the 2011-2012 Guide to Student Housing for students states that “the privacy of each resident’s room is an important component of campus housing. Nevertheless, DePaul reserves the right to enter into and search any on-campus living space at any time for the following purposes…”
The purposes included emergencies, to perform inspections and to close the buildings over break periods as well as to perform maintenance or repair services. The most relevant to the search for CTA maps was “When there is reasonable cause to believe a violation of any university policy is being, has been or will be committed.”
The Director of Residential Education at DePaul University, Deb Schmidt-Rogers pointed out that as an administrator her main concern is “always student safety.”
“While making decisions regarding safety policies and protocols, it is always important to balance issues of student privacy,” Schmidt-Rogers said. “It is important for students to remember that when they sign their housing agreement, they are agreeing to all the terms and conditions associated with that agreement.”
Some students do not share Schmidt-Rogers’ views. DePaul senior Douglas Davenport said the searches were “very draconian” and a waste of school resources. “I don’t even see how it was relevant to student safety,” Davenport said. “Having some signs that would cost a nickel to replace doesn’t really hurt anyone. I’ve personally never had [a sign] but if i was going to be living in the dorms next year I would take one just as an F-U to housing.”
However, Davenport noted that while the school and housing administrations have been known to overreact, it is not necessarily typical. “I think the fact that these type of things don’t happen all the time is what makes it so frustrating when they do,” Davenport said.
The students who processed maps were placed on a list that was handed over to the dean of students. The number of names on the list was restricted from public knowledge to protect the students on the list.
Post-search, students in the dorms received an email explaining that “the act of stealing and/or possessing CTA signage is illegal and a felony” from DePaul student housing. The Illinois statute states anything worth $500 or over is a felony and property under $500 is a misdemeanor.
DePaul sophomore Hannah Tobin said it was hard not to view the searches as an invasion of privacy, especially when the searches did not involve the school’s property. “But that’s a part of living in the dorms and you have to be alright with that,” Tobin said.
The entering of University housing and/or searching of persons is not unprecedented. Besides the extenuating map circumstances there are several other times throughout the year that DePaul does housing inspections, once a quarter.
There has also always been a search of people who enter residence halls during the weekend of DePaul’s FEST often held the last weekend in May. In a letter to students they are reminded of these special procedures as well as to be aware of all other handbook guidelines.
“Staff may request to check bags and purses belonging to residents or guests entering buildings or courtyards. Failure to comply with this request may result in being required to leave the residence hall or courtyard areas.”
Schmidt-Rogers said these procedures have been in place for several years and are for safety measures.
“On the day of FEST, we are aware that there are a higher than average number of visitors to our campus and that there is the potential for drinking, so we take as many precautions as we can to prevent student incidents on campus,” she said. “ The searching of student bags, backpacks, etc. on FEST day is designed to prevent illegal items from entering the building. In the past we have confiscated alcohol and illegal items as a result of these searches. In the many years that these searches have been completed I am only aware of one student who has protested the search. Ironically, this student became an RA.”
Schmidt-Rogers believes that students understand that the FEST policies are meant to ensure their safety and not inhibit their privacy, just as she believes students need to be aware of the contracts with the University they are taking part in when they sign the housing agreement.
Still data seems to point to a misunderstanding or possible apathy about these contractual obligations to the University. In DePaul University’s Public Safety department 2011 – Safety and Security Information report, one of the measurable violations is students actively take part in on school property is the liquor law violations.