Delivering American University's news and views since 1925. | Sunday, November 18, 2018

Public Safety patrols neighborhood, gathers social media ‘intelligence’

House in question is home to four EI brothers

Using area patrols and “intelligence-gathering,” AU is investigating misbehavior stemming from a house on Upton Street in an effort to curb misconduct in the neighborhood and improve community relations.

Four of the five residents are brothers of the unrecognized fraternity EI.

AU has received about 10 complaints from three to four different neighbors, according to Associate Dean of Students Michelle Espinosa.

“That’s a lot, on the scale of neighbor complaints that we look at,” Espinosa said, adding that the majority of concerns deal with the condition of the property, intoxication, cursing during the day and people coming and going at late hours.

Two EI brothers living at the Upton Street house spoke with The Eagle on the condition of anonymity, for fear of disciplinary action.

One of the brothers says the complaints mostly concern “quality of life” issues, adding that he has received no official police citations.

“We’re allowed to live in our house,” he said. “We’re allowed to leave and go out.”

The most recent complaints were reported to AU this past weekend when some of the residents had 15 to 20 guests over for a barbecue, a second brother said.

Public Safety and Metropolitan Police Department officers responded to a complaint that a kiddie pool, left by the house’s previous tenants, had blown into an alley behind the residence. AU e-mailed the residents within an hour saying the University was looking into taking judicial action.

There have been no big parties at the house because the residents are more cautious in light of the complaints, the first brother said.

“There have been no rides from the Quad going to the house,” he said. “There have been no freshmen on the streets drunk from the house. People have come over, and they’ve drank who are of legal age.”

Although there are other addresses in the area that have elicited neighbor complaints about student behavior, local patrols are not being conducted there because the residents are working with AU to remedy the situation, according to Vice President of Campus Life Gail Hanson.

“It’s so different from the other houses in terms of the frequency of the reports and the language that the neighbors use about constant noise, late at night, frequent nights, week nights and weekends, that it’s different than other houses that have been complained about,” Espinosa said.

But administrators say that what makes this house even more unique is the residents’ refusal to change their behavior.

“A reasonable conversation is just not enough to bring about a change in behavior. They want to live the way they want to live,” Hanson said. “Too many people, when they think of what AU students are like in the community, think about what they’ve experienced with that group. It’s unfortunate. Because I think AU students by and large conduct themselves very well.”

But the first brother said AU is crossing the line with administrators placing him on probation for noncompliance. He says he is facing not walking at graduation and his transcripts may be withheld.

“It seems like the school is definitely overstepping their limits, maybe not their legal limits, but what’s expected for students who enrolled in the school,” he said, calling the University the “un-American American.”

Watching the neighborhood

Public Safety and MPD officers are patrolling the area around Upton Street on foot and in both patrol and unmarked cars, according to Public Safety Chief Michael McNair.

“Due to the number of complaints received by the University about the address in question, we have partnered with MPD to watch the neighborhood and this address for activity that may disturb those living in close proximity,” Espinosa said.

Public Safety does not generally have jurisdiction outside AU’s campus, but McNair said it has been granted on a temporary basis through MPD.

“We sit somewhere where we can see them,” McNair said. “There’s lots of ways to see what’s going on in a particular neighborhood.”

MPD Second District Lt. Eric Hayes said he wasn’t aware of this temporary jurisdiction.

Hayes said this residence isn’t a big problem for the D.C. police.

“College students do party. That’s what they do,” he said. “There’s nothing unusual about that.”

Public Safety is also using social media like Facebook and Twitter as part of its “intelligence-gathering” to monitor when parties will occur, including an EI spring rush party that occurred in January, McNair said.

Public Safety looks at many student groups’ social media content, not just that of EI.

“When the parties are, who’s at the parties, what’s going on at the parties that they’re nice enough to show us,” he said. “We look at everything we can look at. In the public domain, it’s fair game.”

The first EI brother said administrators have told him they know about the punching bag on his property and the language involved when the residents curse.

“When you think about government not being in your bedroom and things like that, the school is literally being in my backyard,” he said. “They’re talking about cursing, assembly and things like that.”

A “substantial” stain on AU’s reputation

This sort of stepped-up response is “unusual,” according to Hanson, but it’s warranted based on a “chronic drumbeat of bad behavior.”

“On houses where we have tried to use reason to get people to stop bad behavior and it hasn’t worked, we’re going to take more aggressive action and we’re going to make sure that we do what we need to do, within the realm of the law, but we’re going to do what we need to do to stop the behavior,” McNair said.

The increased response to what Hanson called a “substantial” stain on the University’s reputation comes as AU looks to garner support for its 2011 Campus Plan, a controversial 10-year facilities plan that proposes building an East Campus on the Nebraska Parking Lot, close to local residents.

“The thought of living next to a residence hall gets equated in error with living next to a group of students in a privately rented house,” Hanson said. “And there’s no comparison.”

Prior to the Student Conduct Code changes enacted in June 2010 — AU can now discipline students for off-campus misconduct that does not necessarily violate local, state or federal laws — this sort of action would have been more difficult to take, McNair said.

The revised code gives the University the power to take disciplinary action, “When, in the judgment of University officials, a student’s alleged misconduct has a negative effect on the University’s pursuit of its mission or on the well being of the greater community,” the code says.

“You are a private person until what you’re doing is adversely affecting the University, and then we’re in a different relationship,” Hanson said.

But the first brother said this is putting an “unnecessary stress” on the residents of the house, calling it a “dog-and-pony show for the neighbors.”

“I’m being watched all the time, I’m being told I can’t say certain things, I’m being told I can’t have people at my house,” he said. “That sounds a lot like an authoritarian government.”

Unofficial status

EI, formerly known as Alpha Tau Omega, has been an unofficial group since 2001, when the chapter lost its AU and national recognition for hazing and alcohol violations, according to AU Director of Greek Life Curtis Burrill.

Since then, brothers of the unofficial fraternity have been surrounded by a “conspiracy of silence,” Hanson said, where students won’t reveal their identities.

“We’ve cautioned people about the downside of having anything to do with an unrecognized fraternity,” she said. “I feel bad for AU students because they all get tarred by this small group of bad actors, and I’m a little bit surprised that the student body is as tolerant of this as they are. People still go to these parties — they know who these people are.”

Last year, several brothers lived in a house on Ellicott Street. That house was the subject of numerous neighbor complaints, including ones about late-night parties, intoxicated students, loud music, dangerous driving, public urination and sometimes nude dancers.

Other EI brothers have previously rejected these claims.

AU worked with the Montgomery County, Md., police to try to get the students to leave the Ellicott Street house.

“They got the message. They moved from where they were,” McNair said.

But problems started again when other EI brothers moved into the Upton Street house in January, McNair said.

None of the students currently living in the Upton Street house resided in the Ellicott Street house.

“These guys just don’t get the hint,” he said.

Targeting the behavior

AU officials say the misbehavior at the Upton Street house isn’t indicative of a larger EI investigation. Rather, AU is looking into the residents’ conduct, not the fact that they are members of EI.

“We’re targeting the behavior, not the group,” McNair said, adding that the ultimate goal is to curtail the bad behavior at the Upton Street house.

But AU is concerned about EI, Espinosa said.

“From a broader perspective, we’re certainly trying to be aware overall of what might be going on with students who affiliate with this group because we’re concerned about safety,” she said. “We’re concerned about risk management issues for those students.”

Originally, the first brother did not think AU knew the residents of the house were members of the unofficial fraternity. But now he believes AU has taken the issue too far.

The University has never said it’s illegal for students to join EI, he said. “They’ve never said your behavior is going to be under higher scrutiny because of your affiliation,” he said. “We’re just like everyone else.”

Both brothers say there’s nothing wrong with the school trying to mediate between students and neighbors, but when none of the complaints are substantiated by police reports, it goes too far.

“Having people at your house during the day is not breaking the law,” the first brother said. “Cursing in your backyard, which by the way was not yelling ... is not against the law. It’s free speech, it’s freedom of assembly.”

But it’s not just he and his housemates that need to be careful, the second brother said.

“I worry when the school has that kind of authority,” he said. “Any student could be in this position.”

sdazio@theeagleonline.com


Never miss a story.

Get our weekly newsletter in your inbox.