Tensions rise over student fines

By Ashley DeLeon
Executive Editor

Logan Hailey ’23, his roommate, and a friend were smoking marijuana in an Alumni Hall dorm when they heard a loud knock. They opened the door to two public safety officers who noticed a towel under the door. The officers asked if non-household members were present, and if there was marijuana in the living space. Hailey said yes. He handed a bag of marijuana to the officers, and they made him flush it down the toilet. After they left, Hailey slammed the door out of frustration. 

Someone knocked on Hailey’s door again. The officers had returned. “That’ll be $500 for disrespect,” an officer said. 

     In total, the cumulative fines added up to over $800. 

     “We do have the authority to issue a ticket for disrespectful behavior, and that is left broad by the College intentionally,” said Doug Babcock, director of Public Safety. 

     Hailey’s case is one of several, as fines are becoming an increasingly large issue for students living on campus at St. Michael’s College. Babcock declined to comment on the cumulative number of fines students received this year, but noted a high prevalence of COVID violations. Each COVID violation warrants a $250 fine and probationary status.

     “I feel comfortable saying, you know, there’s 30 to 40 COVID violations a week. And we’ve had between 10 and 15 students a week miss testing,” said Jeff Vincent, director of Residence Life and Community Standards. Vincent explained that within 30 to 40 violations, one violation can include ten people, for example, leading to an overwhelming number of sanctions. Household violations and off-campus guests on campus are the most common violations this year. 

     “The number is high. Too high,” he said. 

     Students claim, however, that they are fined for offenses they believe are unwarranted, and have led people to speculate why Public Safety is cracking down. Public Safety is rumored to receive financial benefits from fines. According to Babcock, this information is false. 

     “No fines whatsoever come back to the department in any form of revenue or budget,” he said. 

     Though an interaction may involve a Public Safety officer, or a report leads to a fine, Babcock explained that it is not always accurate to assume that Public Safety is issuing the fine. The director of Public Safety also denied rumors of a quota system put in place to make up for a budget deficit. “None of that is true. That has nothing to do with the way we do business,” he stated. 

     What students don’t understand, according to Babcock, is that most types of violations that lead to fines are levied by the Office of Student Conduct. “Public Safety has a very small number of things that we can write for citations and that we issue fines on,” he said. 

     At heart, each fine issued is an invitation for conversation, Babcock explained. “When we’re dealing with folks out in whatever space they’re in and whatever the reason we were called, it’s often not when everybody’s having their best day for one reason or another,” he said. Babcock uses this as an opportunity to educate people, and in some instances, the fine is waived.

Tensions between students and officers

     “I’ve always had respect for Public Safety, but the way I was treated made me feel like less of a person,” Hailey said. 

     The public safety officers coerced Hailey to open drawers and search his room for additional marijuana after he verbally expressed that none was left, he said. After they watched him search the room and claimed there was marijuana hidden, the officers realized that Hailey was telling the truth. He was then led to the bathroom and asked to flush what was previously handed to the officers.

     “I’m not even mad that they got us for doing something we really weren’t supposed to do, like smoking weed. You know, it’s off the rules. I was more mad about how they treated us,” Hailey explained. 

    The interaction with Public Safety had a particular impact on Hailey’s roommate. “For most of the week [when the incident occurred], I felt really on edge and had bad anxiety. I had nightmares for days,” said Julian Harris ’23.

     Tensions between students and Public Safety officers has been a contentious topic of conversation on campus, with some claiming that Public Safety is on a “power trip.” 

     People have also expressed concerns with the intentions of officers, and if their intent is deeper than wanting to keep the community safe. 

     “I think the incentive changed. Like last semester went from trying to keep students safe and helping them, and this semester was like trying to get kids in trouble, get part of that 250 dollar fine,” said Kenny Cesar ’22.

     Cesar explained an encounter he had with Public Safety, where he was caught in a residence hall other than his own. 

     “A Public Safety officer that’s been here for like a couple of years was like, ‘yeah, just leave… I don’t want you here. You shouldn’t be here,’” Cesar said. 

     For Julia Fitzgerald ’22, the switch in the behavior of officers, compared to her freshman year, is clear, she said. “[In the past], I remember them wanting to just make sure we’re OK, make sure everything was safe. And now it feels like they just have a bit of a power trip issue going on,” Fitzgerald explained. Within the past few years, she noticed many new, younger officers on campus. “I think that has really affected the way they treat us,” she said.

     “Whether or not conflicts between Public Safety officers and students are on the rise or of a different tone or nature, I don’t have statistics to verify,” Babcock said.  

     Regardless of the conflicts between officers and students, however, Babcock attributes the perceptions of hostility to the lack of bonding activities between officers and students due to COVID-19.

     “We have not been able to conduct our usual outreach activities such as the campus safety field day, pizza social, Fresh Check day and more. When we are able to hold those events again, I believe we will see a positive shift in relations,” Babcock said.  

     In the meantime, Babcock wants everyone to remember that COVID-19 has created a very stressful environment that has changed our daily lives, disrupted our rhythm, and heightened overall stress and anxiety.  

     “We must all work to get through this together,” he said.