When a new, interim alcohol policy was put into place at Brown University in January, East Side residents became concerned that an on-campus prohibition would drive rowdy, booze soaked co-eds screaming into the streets to the Animal House sounds of “Louie, Louie.” This was something of a miscommunication. What was intended to be a shortening of the leash was unfortunately seen by citizens to a be campus wide moratorium that would be forcing party-hungry 20 year olds to off-campus apartments the way people in the ‘20s sought out illegal speakeasies.
The policy was meant to restrict the service of alcohol to registered campus events this spring, ensuring that they could only be held in designated areas. Strict limits to the number of guests would be put in place, as well as requiring approved supervision and, naturally, that alcohol was only served to students of legal drinking age.
However, community concerns were also shared by some students, particularly the editors of the Brown Daily Herald, who in an editorial printed shortly after the policy change was announced, suggested that “these interim policies – which are unlikely to be altered dramatically following the formal review – force students to socialize off campus in far less regulated environments. Beyond the inherent concerns of sexual assault and over-consumption of alcohol in these venues, the increase in off-campus parties strains the University’s relationship with the permanent residents of College Hill.”
While there has since been some clarification as to the specifics of the interim policy, some neighbors remain concerned by what they perceive as a lack of communication on the university’s part regarding the new policy. Addressing that issue directly, Vice President for Campus Life and Student Services Margaret Klawunn promised greater communication between the university and the surrounding community, while also reinforcing the objectives of the new policy, at the most recent College Hill Neighborhood Association Board meeting on April 6.
“The idea was to give the school a better way to monitor spring events and avoid ‘unintended consequences,’” she said, adding that the primary goal was to try to stop unauthorized basement parties like two that occurred last fall. Both of those gatherings resulted in ‘unintended consequences’, and found Brown caught up in a larger national dialogue about abuses on campus.
Problems Began Last Fall
In January, the interim alcohol policy was put into place after two separate reports of sexual misconduct in October. These incidents occurred after the victims had attended unregistered parties thrown by Brown’s Sigma Chi and Phi Kappa Psi chapters. Phi Kappa Psi, taking the harshest of the penalties, was stripped of University recognition status and removed from campus Greek housing, a ban they wouldn’t be able to appeal for four years. This was the result of one of its members allegedly serving an alcoholic drink laced with the date-rape drug Gamma Hydroxybutyrate (GHB) to a woman who was sexually assaulted later that evening.
In an email addressed to the Brown community, Klawunn and Executive Vice President for Planning and Policy Russell Carey stated that the fraternities were responsible “for creating an environment that facilitated sexual misconduct through improperly monitored spaces and inadequate safeguards surrounding the service of alcohol.”
In February, the conversation at Brown shifted dramatically. Charges against the individual accused of administering the GHB were dropped. Lab work done on hair and urine samples that had earlier tested positive for the presence of GHB were suddenly deemed inconclusive. It would later be revealed that both the lab and toxicologist in charge of performing the test on the hair sample had histories of inaccurately reporting their findings. However, even without the physical evidence to press charges against that particular student, a history of code of conduct violations were enough to keep the sanctions weighed against Phi Kappa Psi in place with a reduced probationary period of two and a half years instead of four.
“This case has been complicated and difficult,” Carey and Klawunn said in a community notification issued on March 1. “While the decisions that have been reached are, we believe, fair and appropriate, we fully appreciate that not all members of the community do or will agree with us. We remain fully committed to realizing a campus culture and climate that is safe.”
Further complicating things was the revelation that the accused’s father was a member of the Brown Board of Trustees. On March 11, hundreds of students protested what they saw as a gross mishandling of the case. Protesters taped $1 bills marked with a red IX – Title IX is the Federal civil right prohibiting sexual discrimination in education – over their mouths as they marched through the campus grounds. On Facebook, a Brown student activist group called Act4RJ listed a series of policy demands of the university. The following day, the Undergraduate Council of Students (UCS) echoed several of those demands, diplomatically rephrasing them as recommendations to be “immediately integrated into the work done by the Task Force on Sexual Assault.”
In a letter addressed to the Brown community on March 19, President Christina Paxson insisted that, “Recent suggestions of a ‘thumb on the scale of justice’... are completely false. There is no evidence whatsoever that anyone improperly influenced the investigation or adjudication process. I would not allow that to occur.” One week later she endorsed the policy suggestions put forth by Act4RJ and the UCS, adding two additional recommendations pertaining to confidentiality for all parties in future cases and how to address possible conflicts of interest.
Sexual Assault Report Made Public
On April 7, the Task Force on Sexual Assault released its final report. In it, they bring attention to specific initiatives for raising awareness of sexual violence and centralizing enforcement and prevention efforts.
“The student, faculty and staff members of the Task Force, led by co-chairs Russell Carey and Dr. Michelle Cyr, devoted a substantial amount of time over the past six months to the important community issues of campus sexual and genderbased harassment and violence,” Paxson said in a letter to the community that accompanied the release of the report. “Even as various incidents have prompted deep consideration and questioning of ourselves as a community around awareness and response to sexual violence, we have the advantage of so many members of our campus actively galvanized around these issues.”
According to Mark Nickel, Acting Director of News and Communications, Paxson will have a formal response to the report by the end of the semester, with accepted policy suggestions being implemented for the start of the next academic year.
“President Paxson meets regularly with students, listens carefully and discusses issues of concern,” says Nickel. “Students – undergraduate, graduate and medical – were among the task force members, and campus input has been solicited and considered throughout the process.”
Rebuilding trust will be difficult, but not impossible. Paxson believes that Brown can be a leader in the national discussion surrounding sexual abuse. Unfortunately, sexual violence can never be stopped entirely, but providing more options and support for victims are very attainable goals, especially with voices as bold and passionate as Brown’s students have displayed.
Drinking Policy Recommendations Expected Next
Meanwhile the school continues to work on developing a comprehensive policy for controlling alcohol usage on campus. Officials are hoping that a final report will be issued sometime this month. With the end of the school year in sight, the true effects of any new ruling will be difficult to assess until the fall. However, officials at Brown are confident that the interim on-campus restrictions have in no way resulted in an increase undesirable in behavior off campus.
“Offices involved with student conduct issues, including the office that oversees the University’s relations with East Side neighbors, report no noticeable changes,” said Nickel.
Meanwhile Klawunn urges any neighbors who have problems with student behavior off-campus to contact the school. She reiterated Brown’s willingness to be a good neighbor and is confident in its students’ ability to behave in a manner that is expected of the university.
Going forward it’s clear that Brown is committed to addressing the concerns of both its student and neighboring communities. “Brown’s overriding concern is for the health and safety of all members of the campus community, and that concern will guide the development of university policy,” said Nickel. Brown intends to be more proactive about keeping neighbors in the loop. Likewise, it invites its students to be active in the evolution of policy that will affect them directly.