University of Washington Police Officer Russell Ellis, Jr. patrols off-campus in Seattle. With help from police, a growing number of universities are taking a more proactive approach to monitoring off-campus behavior of students. (AP Photo)
By Donna Gordon Blankinship
The Associated Press
SEATTLE - Ah, life in the university district. Cheap ethnic food. Vibrant street life. Fresh-faced students whizzing by on bicycles.
People who choose to live on the beautiful tree-lined streets surrounding the nation's institutions of higher learning often get a more vibrant experience than they expected - loud parties, rundown student boarding houses and trash generated by weekend melees.
A growing number of universities are starting to take a more proactive approach to monitoring off-campus behavior and neighbors say the efforts are working.
The University of Washington now enforces its campus behavior code off campus as well. A student doesn't need to be charged with a violent crime to activate the campus code at this Seattle university. Being cited for breaking the city's noise regulations is enough to score an invite to the student conduct office.
Architecture professor Earl Bell, who bought a house in the University Park neighborhood 40 years ago, says he has discovered that there's a fine line between convenient and too close.
"We've all got a kind of love-hate relationship with the University of Washington," said Bell, acknowledging that he and his neighbors have noticed a slight improvement lately.
The University of Colorado-Boulder and Penn State also are taking a broader view of offenses that can activate the campus discipline system. In Colorado, the code regulates any conduct that "affects the health, safety or security of any member of the university community or the mission of the university."
Since most college students live off campus, colleges that want to be on top of discipline need to extend their reach beyond their own real estate.
To some, this may sound like an overreaching of university authority; to others, it's a teachable moment.
"We have a responsibility to educate our students about being responsible citizens," said Elizabeth A. Higgins, Washington's director of community standards and student conduct, whose office has "educated" 19 students since the extended code of conduct took effect in January.
The legal ramifications of these policies are not entirely known, said Sheldon Steinbach, an attorney in Washington, D.C., who formerely worked for many years with the American Council on Education, representing school presidents from 1,800 colleges and universities.
"I fully anticipate a judicial challenges over time," Steinbach said.
Penn State's rules are similar to those at the University of Washington, but as university spokesman Bill Mahon points out, he has to first hear about a student behaving badly. Some local police departments work closely with campus authorities, passing along arrest information; others do not.
For example, if a Penn State student breaks the rules over the weekend in State College Borough, the university would probably hear about it on Monday morning, but the same violation in another town would go unnoticed.
"It's an imperfect system," Mahon said.
University of Washington police work with Seattle officers to patrol the area north of campus thick with off-campus housing including fraternities and sororities. Boston College goes further by sending a college official off campus to look for parties and students breaking the law.
An assistant dean of students at Seattle University does something similar via the Internet. A number of parties were shut down this past year after Glen Butterworth spied a page on Facebook publicizing the events. The private university has put its students on notice that cyber-patrolling will continue this year.
The University of Minnesota's campus code is more typical: It is only applied off campus during melees that happen around a campus event. Ohio State University applies its code off campus in cases of assault, drug dealing and major incidents that affect safety on campus.
In New Jersey, Rutgers University polices off-campus behavior only when campus officials have reasonable grounds to believe a student could be dangerous, said university spokeswoman Sandra Lanman. Typically, that means a pending criminal charge relating to a violent crime.
Some universities take their discipline policies a step further. At Duke University, the campus code requires students to report misbehavior by their fellow students to campus officials, no matter where the students find themselves.
In a rural setting, where a university can dominate the community, responsible behavior is much easier to enforce, said Elaine Voss, director of the office of student conduct at Washington State University in rural Pullman, Wash.
A 1998 riot along Greek row and Washington State's national reputation as a "party school" led the university to start taking a more proactive approach to curbing off-campus behavior.
The student code was revised to make the same rules apply to both on- and off-campus behavior. A staff member checks the local police log every day. Campus police forward their log to Higgins' office. Her staff does a lot of on- and off-campus education about alcohol abuse, personal safety and university expectations, including a three-day intensive freshman orientation.
"I think we've made huge strides in calming the place," Voss said.