By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, November 23, 2007
Catholic University's rules for visitors in dorms have long been stricter than those at other local universities, which tend to give students universal key cards and, essentially, freedom. This fall, after a spate of problems at a rowdy freshman dorm, Catholic tightened restrictions even more, including a ban on visitors to Spellman Hall after 8 p.m. on weekends.
Now some students are saying the school has gone too far.
It's an issue every college has to consider: Should they let students make their own fun and their own mistakes, or impose rules that limit both?
In the past, nonresidents had to leave all campus dorms at Catholic by 2 a.m. on weekends, and temporary overnight passes were allowed for visitors of the same gender it they are not students at Catholic. Over the summer, the administration ratcheted the time limit back to midnight.
And this month, after a particularly nasty outburst of vandalism at Spellman -- including holes punched in walls and water fountains wrenched out -- freshmen who live there were told of the new restriction.
Many students were aghast. Midnight is like 8 p.m. for most students, said Joe St. George, a freshman from Ohio. So 8 p.m. is like -- afternoon.
"I get my best work done from midnight to 2," Ryan Winn said. "I'm a very typical college student."
Another freshman said the visiting hours were fine. For a nursing home.
The Tower, the student newspaper, wrote a scathing editorial.
Junior J. Peter Donald started a petition, collecting hundreds of signatures. He said the rules limit students' ability to study or work on projects in groups because the library isn't open late, either. He volunteered to help staff a late-night study room at the library.
"We understand we're in a uniquely Catholic environment. We understand that shooting for the moon -- 24 hours -- is a little much." He's asking for the 2 a.m. cutoff back. "The situation is pretty bad right now. We need to make a change."
He has been cited twice this year for having his girlfriend sleep over.
Sarah Daniels, associate dean of students, said school officials often hear of roommate conflicts based on overnight guests and students who feel it's too noisy to study or sleep.
There are schools that enforce guest policies, said Chris Moody, executive director of housing and dining programs at American University, "but they're few and far between now, especially in metropolitan areas." It's more common at religious schools, he added, and students often choose an environment that fits with their values.
"It's very natural to have weekend visitors" from out of town, said Jan Davidson in the resident life department at the University of Maryland. Other than a common prohibition on stays of more than three nights, designed to discourage people from flat-out moving in, there haven't been rules about visitors there since the late 1960s. Back then, there were rules, especially for women, he said, but with cultural changes and student demands, "that melted away."
The shift happened nationally, with universities moving away from acting as stand-in parents and choosing to treat students as adults.
At the University of Virginia, as at many schools, students make decisions about guests with their roommates. It's part of growing up, learning to negotiate and being responsible, said Angela Davis, associate dean of students.
The situation at Spellman was unusual, Daniels said.
Most dorms have some problems with damage; students are rough on buildings. But it reached a level at Spellman this fall that shocked many of the freshmen there: ceiling tiles pulled down, bathrooms damaged, ugly graffiti scrawled on walls (and some other things too icky to mention).
St. George said that because Spellman is across Michigan Avenue from the central campus, "it's our own little island. If you put a bunch of freshmen away from home on their own for the first time on their own little island . . . " He laughed. "It can cause some problems."
It's never really quiet in Spellman until 3 a.m. or so, St. George said. "Kids talking, screaming, stuff like that. People in the halls."
That was normal. But he said he and other students were shocked by the damage. "Most people were really upset."
Daniels said administrators and hall staff had tried to make changes, including having conversations with students and holding a floor meeting. So they imposed the rules.
Like several students, St. George was glad the school clamped down. "They had to. It was just getting ridiculous. I'm willing to suffer." Many were worried about having to pay huge bills to cover cleaning and repairs: Everyone is held responsible if the culprits aren't found. Some pitched in to scrub and fix what they could. "Most people at Spellman are great," St. George said. "It's just a few people causing problems."
But some students have found themselves caught in strange situations. Winn was working with student leaders in his room and realized that they needed the class president to sign something, but he lived in another dorm and it was after 8 p.m., so he wouldn't be allowed to join the meeting in Spellman. "It was just a joke," Winn said, frustrated.
Some students have tried to find ways to sneak around the rules or shifted their late-night events to other spots.
And many, like Winn, are trying to change it. "I just think it was kind of a policy that was created like a blunt instrument to take care of a small problem," he said, a punishment rather than a means of preventing vandalism. Winn and other student leaders are pushing students to stop the damage and meeting with administrators next month to talk about the rules.
"It's like going and asking Dad," Donald said, "if you can take the car out for a drive."