For three years, the Wesleyan Student Assembly (WSA) and University administrators have been negotiating over Fire Safety policies regarding campus-wide inspections of student housing. Last week, the WSA announced that Fire Safety inspections would not be in effect this semester.
“Our number-one priority is to make sure that students are safe,” said WSA President Mike Pernick ’10. “However, we also want to make sure students aren’t being fined unfairly or inappropriately.”
Last semester, as the WSA began heeding complaints regarding Fire Safety’s inspections policy, it moved to create a formal process online where students could file these concerns. What followed was the WSA’s own investigation into the processes and procedures of fire safety inspections at other universities.
“We discovered that at other universities, when drugs are found, the student responsible for the drugs flushes them down the toilet and the issue is dealt with internally,” Pernick said. “We’re a lot stricter than our peers.”
As a result of the formal complaints filed by students, in addition to the fact that Fire Safety inspected every residence by the end of last semester, fire safety inspections will be suspended for this semester. According to Pernick, however, those places that had serious fire safety violations last semester will still be subject to inspection.
“This search stoppage is happening both because Fire Safety was able to search all dorms in the first semester and because students have continued to question the role of Fire Safety on campus,” Pernick said. “Fire Safety is stopping its searches so that we can have reasonable conversations about its policies, including whether Fire Safety has the right to go through drawers and closets, whether students should be present during the inspections, and what Fire Safety should do with any contraband.”
According to Associate Vice President of Facilities Joyce Topshe, however, there has been no change in policy.
“Our goal each year is to conduct at least one fire safety inspection in every student residence,” she said in an e-mail to the Argus. “Additional inspections are scheduled as time and staffing permit to ensure a safe campus. Re-inspections tend to focus on areas where hazardous conditions have been identified. There has been no change in policy or procedure in this regard.”
Pernick, however, insists that this is the first time in recent history that Fire Safety will not be actively conducting inspections throughout the academic year.
“This is the first time I’ve heard that Fire Safety only searches once per year,” he said. “Throughout last year we had students appealing fines [to the Appeals Board].”
Topshe’s claim that there has been “no change in policy” likely has to do with legal concerns, Pernick said.
“The University approaches issues like these carefully because of liability concerns,” he said. “The administration would not want to expose the University to a lawsuit because of their actions regarding safety. Our goal is also safety, but this semester the inspections will be few and far between.”
As Pernick noted, the central issues with Fire Safety inspections are those of student privacy and student rights. The University boasts a higher number of student arrests when compared to its peer institutions, he said.
“Our peer institutions have maybe 2 to 3 drug referrals per year at most, whereas Wesleyan has had 10 to 15 last semester,” Pernick said. “We’re so off-base with this issue of safety.”
According to Pernick, these arrests are the result of the policy procedures that the University currently has in place. If Fire Safety, upon inspecting student housing, finds illegal drugs, it calls in Public Safety (PSafe) officers, who are required to subsequently alert the Middletown Police Department (MPD).
For J.K. ’09, this policy nearly prevented him from graduating. In late September, J.K. and friends were using marijuana and left it on a coffee table in their wood frame. When their fire alarm sounded shortly thereafter and Fire Safety entered their house, the drugs were confiscated and MPD was alerted. J.K. was subsequently sent to the Student Judicial Board (SJB) and was put on probation for the semester.
Three weeks later, however, Fire Safety came back to the same wood frame to do a follow-up inspection. J.K. was not home at the time, and although J.K. made a point of hiding any drugs in closed drawers, Fire Safety claimed that J.K. had left a drawer open. MPD was called again, and J.K. was sent back to the SJB.
“Instead of throwing me out of school, the SJB extended my probation until the end of this year and I’m doing community service,” J.K. said. “This is fine by me because I can now walk at graduation. However, Fire Safety’s concern should be for the safety of students. If drugs are affecting a student’s grades, then having the MPD come in might be a good thing. But I think there are better ways of pursuing drug offenses, especially if the student has under a gram.”