When conducting routine and unannounced room inspections, the Campus Fire Safety Department will report any contraband items such as guns, alcohol or illegal drugs, even if they are not fire hazards. When Fire Safety officials discover such items, they call Public Safety (PSafe) officers, who then notify the Middletown Police Department (MPD).
There has been much controversy surrounding the Campus Fire Safety Department ever since the tightening of its policies and the subsequent increase in crackdowns two years ago. In particular, many students have been struck by the correlation between Fire Safety inspections and drug arrests.
Though much of the controversy has died down, Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) President Mike Pernick ’10 still believes that there are fundamental problems with Fire Safety’s current policy. He criticized the department’s practice of checking rooms without giving students prior warning.
“Public Safety needs to get a letter from the dean [to search rooms],” he said. “Fire Safety doesn’t need such a letter. There is no notification of residents. This represents a lack of respect for student privacy. The WSA has tried to get this changed but it was unsuccessful.”
This has resulted in some very real consequences for students. In September of last year, a sophomore left marijuana on his desk when he left his room during a routine fire drill. When he returned, MPD officers were waiting for him, because a Fire Safety inspector found the drugs and reported them to PSafe, who then notified city police. In February 2007, Fire Safety inspected a WestCo student’s room and found half an ounce of marijuana, as well as drug paraphernalia. The student, then a sophomore, was arrested and appeared in court, resulting in about $1000 in legal fees and a community service requirement to clear her criminal record. Fire Safety did not say whether any students have been arrested this year under similar circumstances.
Joyce Topshe, assistant vice president for Facilities, insisted that Fire Safety reports illegal items and substances as a means of protecting students.
“Fire Safety staff are not in a position to know if a firearm is registered or loaded, or whether a drug is lethal or not,” Topshe said. “This job is best left to the legal authorities, which is why they are called.”
Becky Weiss ’10 , the chair of the WSA’s Student Affairs Committee—which is responsible for addressing issues regarding Fire Safety—said she understands the tough situation Fire Safety is faced with when dealing with the discovery of illegal drugs and other contraband items within students’ rooms.
“I have mixed feelings,” Weiss said. “I think they have a legal obligation to report it if they see it.”
According to Weiss, inspectors do not touch any suspected illegal drugs, but only report them to PSafe officers, who then call the MPD. Inspectors are not allowed to look through drawers, and can only report on what is in plain sight. Fire Safety inspects every room on campus at least once a semester.
Looking back at her experience, the student arrested in Westco—who is now a senior and wished to remain anonymous— still believes that Fire Safety overstepped its boundaries.
“I respect that they are doing their job,” she said. “But I don’t believe that it’s in their discretion to report things that are not Fire Safety-related.”
The student recalled that the MPD officers who arrested her felt that their time was being wasted.
“The police officer told me that it’s very rare that they’ll book someone for so little weed,” she said. “Middletown Police have bigger fish to fry.”
In an interview with The Argus after the September 2007 arrest, Director of Public Safety Dave Meyer said that calling MPD is simply following protocol.
“[Public Safety] just does the reporting,” he said. “If there are any drugs, we call the police.”
Ultimately, Meyer’s recommendation to students was a simple one.
“Don’t do it at all,” he said. “It’s illegal.”