When students get rowdy, should colleges step in?

University of Rhode Island is latest to extend disciplinary reach over student behavior.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When Micah Daigle closes his philosophy and political science books each day, he drives 15 minutes from the University of Rhode Island to his private life in nearby Narragansett. Now, says the student, the shadow of academia will follow him home.

This week the university opted to extend its disciplinary powers over students who misbehave - on or off campus. In doing so, the campus joins a growing list of schools that have expanded their disciplinary reach beyond the confines of their quads and corridors.

How much oversight schools should exercise over students in the absence of parental authority is a question that has long vexed college deans. But the debate is intensifying now that schools have been held liable for alcohol-related accidents off campus and have faced more demands from communities that they clamp down on raucous behavior - from late-night parties to rioting after sports events.

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"There appears to be an increased pressure from local politicians and citizens in communities to request that jurisdiction be extended," says John Zacker, director of student discipline at the University of Maryland in College Park.

Officials at the University of Rhode Island, where two-thirds of students live off campus, say the new policy will keep students safer, arguing that they "wear" the school colors no matter where they are.

But many students, like Mr. Daigle, have balked, dubbing the move the "URI Patriot Act" and claiming it undermines their credibility as adults, even though most pay rent, hold jobs, and pay taxes. "They are not helping anyone by sticking a pacifier in our mouths," says Daigle, a senior majoring in philosophy.

Officials at schools across the US say students assume that broader disciplinary jurisdiction will mean a barrage of arrests. That was not the case at the University of Cincinnati last year, when a new policy took effect for abutting communities.

Students' worst fear "was that the code of enforcement off-campus encroached upon their territory," says Mitchel Livingston, vice president for student affairs and services. In the absence of an overwhelming number of additional arrests, "that fear has been allayed."

University of Rhode Island officials expect the same. They say their disciplinary power is narrow - confined to serious acts that threaten the safety of self or others, or repeated arrests - and is intended to connect students in need to services and counseling.

J. David Smith, police chief of Narragansett, where many students live, hopes the policy will be a deterrent, ensuring a better quality of life for both residents and students. "The vast majority of students care very much about their safety," he says.

Across the country, concern about accountability is a driving force behind schools' revamping conduct codes. School officials cite court cases in which universities were held responsible for off-campus accidents because they did not do enough to prevent them. "In 21st-century litigious America, colleges are increasingly concerned about liability issues," says Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel at the American Council on Education.

While colleges are primarily concerned with student safety, they increasingly worry about their responsibility for accidents of foreseeable harm if they fail to try to prevent it, agrees Frances Cohen, URI dean of students. "The landscape has totally changed in the past five years," she says.

Before the social revolutions of the 1960s and '70s, it was assumed that colleges would extend authority over the student body, says University of Maryland's Dr. Zacker. But then students demanded more freedom. Over the past decade, he says, most codes of conduct have been either vague about the extent of their reach or limited to college corridors.

That is quickly changing. At the University of Kentucky, which extended its disciplinary reach this year, Tony Blanton, associate dean of students, says research he compiled last year showed that of 20 comparable universities, 18 had a policy allowing it to take action off-campus. URI officials found the same.

University policies vary in breadth and scope. Many define specific behaviors that would merit university intervention, but others review cases more subjectively. Some extend their power only to adjacent communities; others have no boundaries.

Experts say cooperation between communities and universities are crucial. Dr. Livingston at the University of Cincinnati says the biggest impact of the disciplinary policy so far is gratitude within the community that the university is taking a more active role in quality-of-life issues.

Back at URI, Daigle says the school is bowing to demands of a community that sees students as "an alien force." Students suggest, too, that the police, not the university, should monitor such matters. Says senior Jesse Whitsitt-Lynch, one of those circulating petitions and planning protests against this and other university policy changes: "That's why they exist."

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