Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Wednesday, July 18, 2018

AU neighbors vie for stricter conduct code

For nearly seven months, Jim and Rachel Fenton have dealt with neighbors they deem unruly. Constant streams of AU students — many drunk, many loud — disturb what could otherwise be a peaceful existence in their upper Northwest home, according to statements they have made at Advisory Neighborhood Commission meetings.

In October, the Fentons contacted AU, hoping the university would help to stop the disruptions. Since then, parties have continued despite efforts by many different departments of the AU administration. The Department of Public Safety, Campus Life, Student Activities and other officials have all been unable to fully address the Fenton’s concerns.

The Fentons — residents in a neighborhood where houses often sell for over $1 million — live next door to a house rented to at least four college students, some of them members of the unofficial fraternity EI.

Now, as AU tries to garner support for its proposed campus plan, which outlines proposals for large-scale construction in the Nebraska Parking Lot and the Tenley Campus, the university is making adjustments to Student Conduct Code regulations, greek life oversight and attempting to more accurately account for the whereabouts of students living off campus. This article is the first in an on-going series that will examine proposed changes and reactions from both students and community members.

EXPANDING REACH

AU officials announced that it might revise the Student Conduct Code next fall, making it easier to punish students for off-campus indiscretions at a March 18 meeting of ANC 3E.

Currently, AU can only punish students who have been given a citation by police or if their behavior is clearly endangering or threatening AU staff, administrators or students. Since the code lists all violations of local, state and federal laws as violations of the code as well, students can be punished for their off-campus behavior.

If the proposed changes are made, the university will now be able to punish students for more off-campus actions, even if police have not issued the student a citation.

The move is partly in response to the neighboring community’s growing concern over the increasing number of AU students moving off campus. There are 3,500 undergraduate students living off campus now out of approximately 6,800 overall, according to Vice President of Campus Life Gail Hanson.

“There’s a limit to our jurisdiction, and we are going to expand it,” Hanson said at the ANC meeting. “We are actively talking about the language to expand it.”

Hanson said that while the university is able to punish students for crimes like drug dealing, violent crime, etc., AU is unable to stop smaller nuisances that disturb neighbors.

“What neighbors are saying to us is that … you need to have the authority to impose your code where [there are] violations,” Hanson said in an interview with The Eagle.

The university will try to satisfy community requests without violating students’ rights.

“This affords administrators … a level of discretion in what we can pursue off campus,” she said. “How can we implement language that will be helpful in that regard but be fair about it.”

While the vast majority of students do not cause problems for their neighbors, the few houses that do can give the university a “black eye,” according to Penny Pagano, director of Community and Local Government Relations.

“It reverberates back on AU, and people can, for better or worse, reflect that back on AU students,” she said. “Sometimes these incidents can generate a lot of publicity and ill will.”

Out of the numerous houses rented by AU students in the neighborhood, only three cause serious and recurring problems, according to Hanson.

A house on Ellicott Street has given the university a particularly difficult time. According to accounts given by the Fentons at various ANC meetings, the house often throws parties that last late into the night and usually involve drunken students, loud music, dangerous driving, public urination and occasional “nude dancers.”

Two members of EI, one a former resident of the house, have flatly rejected these allegations.

According to the two members of the fraternity — who requested anonymity — there has not been a party at the house since the beginning of the semester. Furthermore, members of the house have tried to speak with the Fentons to establish an understanding with them. The Fentons were not interested and refused to speak, they said.

The house keeps parties on “lockdown,” and no alcohol is ever allowed outside, they said. In addition, the sources refused to say that the house was the “EI house,” although they do acknowledge that some of the residents are members of the fraternity.

The Fentons refused to comment for this story.

Student Conduct charges have been filed against some members of the house, according to Assistant Vice President and Dean of Students Rob Hradsky. He did not elaborate on the nature of the charges due to privacy laws. One of the EI members said that they were threatened with suspension.

While the Student Conduct Code makes illegal activity an explicit violation, there is latitude given to the university to file charges against students who are deemed to threaten “the safety and well-being of the campus community.” Typically, this designation has only applied to people directly associated with the university — such as students, staff and officials ­— and not the neighboring community. This interpretation keeps the university from actively pursuing most cases of off-campus misconduct unless police have issued a citation.

However, the Metropolitan Police Department often has other things to deal with, according to Hradsky.

“If a neighbor calls MPD directly, it will take a very long time to respond, if they respond at all, and its almost guaranteed that they will never write a citation,” he said. “If we expand code, primarily we would be expanding the language so that we wouldn’t have to have a citation to pursue a complaint.”

The university usually calls students in for a meeting to hear both sides of a story before pursuing punishment, Hradsky said. However, sometimes students continue with their behavior.

“Recognizing that sometimes student behavior is egregious, it is important that students understand that they do have responsibilities in the neighborhood,” he said. “In cases where we don’t, we feel like we need more authority to hold them accountable.”

Even if MPD does respond to calls from disgruntled neighbors, often they are as powerless as AU.

Rules prohibit police officers from entering houses unless there are clearly dangerous criminal acts occurring, according to MPD Lieutenant Alan Hill, who directs operations in AU’s district.

“If [students] do not answer the door, we cannot force entry,” Hill said at the ANC meeting. “We cannot just go kick the door down.”

MPD recently purchased decibel meters to monitor parties. If parties become too loud, officers can cite the owner of the house for noise violations. However, the meters are expensive and MPD in AU’s district must share the meter.

At last Thursday’s ANC meeting, Hanson said that the university was actively looking into changing the code by next fall semester.

Minor changes to the code can be changed with the approval of Hanson. President Neil Kerwin must approve changes to the “nature or scope” of the code.

You can reach this staff writer at cszold@theeagleonline.com.


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