Know your rights

Cheryl McEvoy

For on-campus residents, there is one sound that can strike fear in even the most daring Villanovans: the RA’s knock.

Every weekend, residents reluctantly look through their peepholes when they hear the sound, hoping to see a fellow partygoer. But when the RA is on the other side, students are left wondering what to do.

“I feel like the rules are hidden from everybody,” senior English major Lauren Linkowski says. “The general student body doesn’t know [the policies].”

“I had no clue if I could keep the door closed or what the penalty would be for not showing them the fridge,” says junior mechanical engineering major Rob Herman, who was sanctioned for a policy violation during his freshman year.

Policies, procedures and student rights are outlined in The Blue Book, the student handbook. Most students do not bother to read the handbook, and they want to know their rights without sifting through legal jargon. Many of the big questions on students’ minds include residence hall policies: Can residents refuse to open the door? Can the RA search the fridge? Do residents have the right to remain silent?

“We want to create an atmosphere where students can study, learn, live and respect each other,” explains Tom DeMarco, director for Residence Life, summarizing the purpose of housing policies.

Each year, Villanova’s Office of Residence Life and the dean of students review University housing regulations, DeMarco says. Individual policies are defined in the effort to promote the University’s mission to educate and enlighten students. In addition, the policies must comply with state and federal standards on matters like building security and fire safety.

Though state and federal regulations serve as a base for safety and security rules, Villanova has the freedom to define more individual policies, including proper justification for room entry.

“As a private school, many of the requirements for police to enter a room do not apply to us,” DeMarco says.

DeMarco explains that all universities have a primary responsibility to maintain a safe learning environment as educational institutions. Therefore, universities are not required to follow the strict standards of due process and have more freedom to investigate infractions that can endanger a student’s health or security.

According to the University housing contract, RAs, Public Safety officers and other University employees can enter a resident’s room for “exhibition, inspection, repair, emergency and to insure compliance with University regulations,” and they can do so without documentation and without notifying residents in advance. However, students are protected from unnecessary invasions of privacy by the Student Bill of Rights, which states that students have the right to “reasonable personal privacy” except when a student is in danger or is suspected of a policy infraction.

The Code of Student Conduct further outlines the rules for room entry. RAs and Public Safety officers can enter a resident’s room in the case of an emergency or to look for missing individuals or property, regardless of whether the resident is in the room at the time. They can also enter if there is sufficient suspicion of a policy infraction. DeMarco says that excessive noise, large numbers of residents entering the room and visible alcohol are the most common indicators that alert RAs to a possible violation.

RAs who notice suspicious activity while in a residence hall other than their own technically have the right to enter the room, but more commonly, they notify the RA on duty in the building.

“We prefer to have a known individual knock on the door rather than a stranger,” DeMarco says, explaining that residents may be more hesitant to open the door for an RA they do not know.

As a sign of respect for students’ privacy, DeMarco says that RAs and Public Safety officers should not abuse the right to enter a room and are expected to enter only when they have a justifiable reason.

“They shouldn’t just be walking into a room randomly and opening a fridge,” he says.

When an RA or officer knocks, however, residents are expected to comply with the individual’s requests, DeMarco says, which often includes opening the refrigerator. Rumor has it that students who have their own refrigerators instead of rented University fridges are exempt from searches, but in reality, all residents are expected to cooperate and allow the RA to look in the fridge. Residents who refuse to let the RA conduct a search can face penalties or more severe sanctions for non-compliance. According to the Code of Student Conduct, refusing to cooperate with questioning can lead to more severe sanctions.

In addition to emergency situations and policy violations, RAs also reserve the right to enter residents’ rooms before breaks and during fire safety checks. Before breaks, every room is inspected to ensure that all appliances have been turned off and doors are locked, DeMarco says. During fire drills, a randomly selected number of rooms are inspected. RAs have the right to remove any alcohol, candles or other illegal material they find, and the searches can result in disciplinary action against the student.

“While we are in the room, if there are violations in plain view, we certainly cannot ignore them,” DeMarco says.

Once items are confiscated from rooms, residents lose their right to such property, and the items are usually not returned.

“[Students] complain when they get citations, especially during fire safety checks, but that’s their own fault because I warn them ahead of time,” says senior history major Brittany Medlin, an RA in Delurey Hall.

Medlin says that the Office of Residence Life permits RAs to warn students when fire checks or break inspections are approaching.

“Students are usually okay with inspections,” Medlin says. “They know I’m not out there to get them.”

Medlin says she understands why Residence Life requires fire safety inspections.

“We do find candles and lamps that melt,” she says, adding that confiscation is “part of the job you have to do.”

In addition to RAs and Public Safety officers, facilities workers also have the right to enter residence halls for maintenance requests or repairs. Workers can enter the room without prior notification and when residents are not in the room. However, residents reserve the right to privacy, as workers are not permitted to conduct searches.

According to the Code of Student Conduct, students have the right to be notified when they are charged with a violation and have the right to know the details of all allegations. Students are also allowed to present a defense and can offer evidence and witnesses to help their case. Students are presumed innocent until proven guilty and also gives students the right to an appeal. Appeals, however, are limited to hearings and sanctions that involve “explusion, suspension, loss of good disciplinary standing, or loss of campus residency,” according to the Code of Student Conduct. Minor sanctions, such as alcohol infractions, cannot be appealed. After students receive notification of the charges, they can elect to meet with Ryan Rost, the assistant dean of students, to share their side of the story. Rost then determines the proper course of action.

Junior mechanical engineering major Kim Slavick says she met with Rost after she was charged with an alcohol violation in her sophomore year.

“She asked how much I had been drinking and whether it had been on or off campus,” she says. “It was expected.”

Slavick says Rost gave her the opportunity to defend herself, but Slavick admitted her guilt. The alcohol charge was Slavick’s first and only violation, so Rost was “nice about it,” she says.

“She told me to be careful in the future,” Slavick says. “No probation or anything like that.”

Slavick says she understands why RAs have the right to enter rooms, but thinks that they should be respectful of privacy.

“If you’re drinking and there’s a party and you’re getting louder, I think they should definitely give a warning, but they shouldn’t be allowed to barge in,” Slavick says.

“I don’t like the fact that sometimes they don’t give you a warning,” junior Herman agrees.

Herman also met with Rost when he was caught with alcohol.

“I think she dealt with it well,” he says. “I couldn’t complain.”

In severe cases, when disciplinary action may include suspension or expulsion, students have the right to request a hearing with the University Judicial Board. Students must represent themselves at the hearings – no lawyers or parents are permitted to attend. The Judicial Board decides by majority vote, and students have five days to appeal the decision. Parents are permitted to attend appeal hearings.

No matter what the violation, students want to avoid the charges and consequences at all costs. So next time the RA gives a noise warning, you may just want to turn down the volume – and check out The Blue Book. while you’re at it.