Caught up in covert ops
Chico State students, watched on the Web, may face punishments they didn’t see coming
Brandon Loyd never imagined a typical college party could lead to repercussions to his academic life at Chico State University. But when the college’s student newspaper ran a risqué picture of him with alcohol, he faced much more than a hangover.
Loyd was in his junior year last spring when reporters at The Orion ran the provocative picture of him grasping the end of a beer bong from between his legs, with a female student kneeling before him, drinking from the tube. The photograph had been pulled from a social networking Web site, where it was posted without Loyd’s knowledge.
Adding insult to injury, the photo was published on the opening day of campus elections during a race in which Loyd was seeking the office of Associated Students president.
Aside from causing embarrassment and possibly costing Loyd the election (he lost by a slim margin), he learned he could also face academic sanctions. Because despite what many students might believe, the judiciary arm of Chico State can punish students for their actions both on and off campus.
“At the time, I didn’t know the university could do much,” said Loyd during a recent interview.
A month after the election, he was called into the Student Judicial Affairs office. Because Loyd was underage at the time the photo was taken and alcohol was presumed to be present, university officials told him he could face suspension or even expulsion.
Loyd, a business student who carries a 3.2 grade-point average, had previously spent three years in student government, but it was the first time he had heard about the off-campus policy. And he’s likely not alone.
Unbeknownst to most students, they are facing greater university oversight in their everyday actions. With important policies often tucked amid a plethora of dry text regarding conduct, students skim over regulations that, when broken, can find them sitting before a university judiciary committee.
Loyd was let off the hook with a stern warning, but that’s not always the case.
Chico State’s party image is something administrators have been battling for decades. In recent years, efforts to curtail underage and binge drinking have focused on student organizations, most of which come under the authority of the Student Activities office.
“Alcohol would be the biggest problem we run into,” said Rick Rees, director of Student Activities. “Certainly this campus is alcohol fueled.”
Indeed, alcohol or drugs have been the key factors behind several of Chico State’s scandals. And the majority of them have involved student groups, including several social Greek organizations, the debate team and the college’s business enterprise club.
Most students know that alcohol consumption and possession are prohibited on campus, except during certain official functions. What they may not be aware of concerns their activity on Internet sites, such as MySpace.com. Students who post pictures of themselves drinking on campus can be punished as though they were caught in the act.
“We’ve seen a lot of these incidents,” said Linda Schurr, interim director of the Student Judicial Affairs department.
Schurr said her office doesn’t regularly monitor students’ profiles, but resident advisers and housing staff sometimes do. And students can be held liable for much more than just drinking in pictures: She said SJA has punished students for putting pictures of other students on their pages without their permission, as well as for leaving offensive remarks on someone’s page.
Dorm-dwellers face an additional tier of enforcement. On top of Student Judicial Affairs, University Housing penalizes students who post pictures of themselves drinking on campus (though not off campus). Residents in possession of alcohol can be kicked out of campus housing, whether or not they are caught in person or via the Internet. Additionally, they may lose housing fees amounting to thousands of dollars, depending on when their contract is terminated.
Jessica Thomas is a sophomore who will be a resident adviser in Esken Hall this year. She said RAs were not specifically told to monitor their residents. Still, Thomas, who doesn’t have a MySpace account, is aware of some RAs who become online friends with their residents, solely to watch over their activities and report any violations.
“We’re obligated to document it,” Thomas said. “I would stress to students not to put any of their drinking pictures online. Otherwise, it is a big red flag that says, ‘Come get me.’ “
When it comes to enforcing the rules at Chico State, Student Judicial Affairs is the primary investigative force. Housed in Kendall Hall, the department handles all matters related to student conduct infractions as well as student grievances.
Schurr said her office routinely sees students who have violated campus alcohol policies, or who have been accused of academic dishonesty. Judicial Affairs is a necessary entity at any academic institution, but students may be surprised at the extent of the office’s authority.
Last year, changes to Title 5 of the California Code of Regulations expanded the authority of SJA offices at all CSU campuses to hold students accountable for their actions off campus. Schurr’s office determines academic consequences, which range from warnings to expulsion.
For students, this means they may face a double whammy for underage drinking: citations from Chico or university police in addition to academic sanctions.
Schurr said SJA typically learns about off-campus infractions from university police. In recent years, the office has forged a stronger relationship with the police agency—a point campus police reiterated.
University police Lt. Robyn Hearne said she and other officers have worked “hand-in-hand” with Judicial Affairs, letting administrators know about arrests or citations of Chico State students.
“Its common procedure,” Hearne said. “An officer knows to automatically forward a summary to Judicial Affairs.”
Schurr concedes that many students probably are not aware of this process. As a result, for the first time, a handout for incoming freshmen titled “Students Rights and Responsibilities” includes a passage informing them of the campus’ increased authority.
Still, it’s up to the students to read and understand the clause, which is vague and printed in small type at the end of the document. During a recent interview, Schurr highlighted the sentence on the provided copy. It reads: “Conduct that threatens the safety or security of the campus community, or substantially disrupts the functions or operation of the University is within the jurisdiction of this Article regardless of whether it occurs on or off campus.”
Even Schurr admits it is unlikely that students will actually read the policy, or other similar policies.
“It is hard for students,” she said. “You see a lot of stuff in writing. Students just get bombarded with policies.”
One problem students face when it comes to rules related to alcohol consumption is that no one policy applies to every group on campus.
“There really isn’t a universal university alcohol policy,” said Rees, the Student Activities director. “The question [when it comes to regulations] is who, when and where?”
Rees said all student organizations must follow state laws and the California State University system’s Student Code of Conduct. Further guidelines are determined by the organizations themselves. The only clear-cut alcohol policy is that which applies to Greek organizations. Those policies, which include a ban on alcohol at all Greek houses, were formed after the 2005 hazing of Matthew Carrington, who at the time of his death was pledging a rogue Chico fraternity.
There’s even less clarity, Rees said, because of the differences that exist among certain student groups.
“A lot of people look at these organizations as all the same,” he said. “And that’s not true.”
Rees explained that some student organizations are not under the jurisdiction of his office, and have an even different set of rules and regulations to follow. These include instructionally related activities such as the Chico State Livestock Judging Team or The Orion.
“They are just like a class,” Rees said. “They are under the supervision of university employees. What they can or cannot do is different from another organization.”
The result of this policy ambiguity spells trouble for students, who often end up being sanctioned under regulations they aren’t aware ever existed.
“It gets confusing,” Rees said. “Students can wonder, ‘What set of policies do I follow?’ “
With more than 200 university-recognized organizations, Rees admits, the campus does not have the capacity to personally meet with every organization to inform them of policies. Still, he is “not terribly empathetic” to students who claim ignorance.
“We e-mail the organizations and point them to new policies on our Web site,” he said.
The e-mails, however, go to a designated contact that the organization has provided to the Student Activities office. That contact is responsible for informing the rest of the organization about the rules.
As it turns out, students aren’t the only ones confused about the regulations. Rees said his office has had a lot of questions about policies from many organizations’ advisers.
Rees said that he is working on better training for advisers, but that there are “too many” to conduct efficient training. Like students, advisers are referred to the Student Activities Web site to find university policies—something they would have to find the time to do amidst lecturing, grading term papers and counseling students.
Thomas, the Esken Hall resident adviser, said students are provided with a handbook to educate them about campus policies. She said while the housing administration is confident that residents read the manual, she does not share the same sentiment.
“I think they glance at it,” Thomas said. “But I don’t think they read it cover to cover.”
Meghan Moriarty, a junior who lived in Whitney Hall as a freshman, is a prime example.
“We were supposed to read it,” Moriarty said. “I didn’t. I don’t think anyone really did.”
Included in the booklet titled “Living In” are policies ranging from a ban on crepe paper (a fire hazard) to the possession of drug paraphernalia. Most of the rules are intended to protect students and curb underage drinking at campus facilities. Still, students who simply give the handbook a cursory look may be surprised to learn that, when it comes to their rooms, nothing is private.
According to the housing manual, any time illegal drugs or alcohol is suspected in an individual’s room, the room is subject to inspection by resident advisers, University Housing staff members or university police.
Other minor violations that can get students in trouble include noise complaints. For instance, Thomas said resident advisers can write up students who can be heard from three doors down.
And then there are those networking sites, such as MySpace and Facebook, which can lead to sanctions for something that occurred nowhere near the dorms, or even off-campus.
Loyd, now 21 and starting his senior year, considers himself relatively lucky. He said that if university staff had found his picture, rather than The Orion, he could have faced more severe consequences.
Like Thomas, he wants students to know the importance of keeping their weekend partying off the Internet and out of the hands of the college.
“If Judicial Affairs wanted to find anyone [breaking the rules], MySpace and Facebook would be a gold mine,” Loyd said.
These days, Loyd is working to keep that incriminating photo out of the hands of potential employers by removing it from the Web—the Orion’s online archives and the Chico Beat, which also ran the picture. He has written letters to both publications, urging them to pull the photo, though, so far, he has had little response.
He also wants to inform students that there can be lasting consequences to what many may consider typical college behavior.
“This could have happened to anyone,” Loyd said. “Students need to know that.”