Colleges have been threatening students with stiff penalties for failing to practice social distancing and wear masks, blasting “selfish and reckless” behavior and issuing hundreds of suspensions.

At Cornell University, however, it’s the students who are becoming the most vocal enforcers of coronavirus-era rules.

“Jessica Zhang has shown that she does not care to comply to public safety measures and wants to put other citizens at risk for the sake of her own entertainment,” reads an online petition from a “Concerned Student Coalition” that had gathered nearly 2,000 signatures by Wednesday night. It says Zhang — a freshman who happens to be a TikTok star with more than half a million followers — should be expelled for flouting coronavirus precautions while partying.

“Some students don’t have the luxury of going home to a quiet and healthy environment to focus on academics,” the petition warns. “Do not ruin it for everyone else.”

Students are returning this month to campuses, where they are expected to help police their peers and where a few people’s misbehavior could get everyone sent home. Skeptics doubt young people’s willingness to keep each other in line, given college’s social pressures: “the people who slide up saying ‘you’re not social distancing’ are the ones that wouldn’t have been invited anyway,” read the Snapchat post that kicked off a backlash against Zhang.

The fallout at Cornell made it clear, though, that some students have embraced their role as the first line of defense against the novel coronavirus, even as other community members wonder how much a freshman navigating an unprecedented college experience can really be held culpable. Some, including Zhang, say zealous promotion of the rules has devolved into bullying as teenagers take matters into their own hands.

“Maybe if we weren’t in a pandemic,” said Milan Broughton, a freshman at Cornell who signed the petition, when asked if the public shaming had spun out of control.

“The people who you wouldn’t expect to snitch will snitch,” Broughton said. “It’s kind of the culture that we need to have around. You need to hold everyone accountable.”

As Syracuse University prepared to reopen at the end of August, students shared their experiences and concerns about returning to school. (The Washington Post)

Quarantined inside her school housing because she hails from a state with a high number of infections, Broughton was thinking Wednesday about the provost’s commitment to consider a campus shutdown if more than 250 coronavirus cases emerge within seven days. Cornell has reported just 28 positive tests on campus since February, but other schools have discovered hundreds of infections shortly after reopening this month.

For many students, Broughton said, school is a safe haven.

“So we need to police ourselves,” the 18-year-old said.

Zhang has posted a video to TikTok captioned “Apologies + No More Lies.” She said that a “false narrative” has been circulating and that she gathered with a dozen people who had tested negative for the virus.

“I wrongly believed it was safe for us to gather without masks, and I sincerely apologize to the Cornell and Ithaca community for making this mistake,” said the freshman, who was profiled in the Cornell Daily Sun this spring as an aspiring entrepreneur who gained legions of young fans while documenting her college application process.

In a Thursday interview after this article’s publication, Zhang — an 18-year-old from Michigan, now quarantining off campus in a hotel — said the petition has spread falsehoods and unfairly smeared her character. She says Cornell has told her the petition will not affect her punishment, which she said was “confidential” and declined to share, but she wonders if her reputation is sealed before the start of class.

She says she has worked since elementary school to attend an elite college, the daughter of Chinese immigrants who valued their children’s education.

“So I would be devastated if my career were to be put in jeopardy … as the result of one mistake,” Zhang said.

Cornell, which did not address questions about Zhang, has created a “behavioral compact” for all students on campus as well as in surrounding Ithaca, N.Y. Anyone in the Cornell and Ithaca-area communities can report violations to the university — and students are told that they “must adopt a culture of shared responsibility for … safety and well-being.”

One rule: Students may attend gatherings of fewer than 30 people and only while wearing masks and keeping six feet apart.

“While we are not able to speak to individual cases, we will note that a number of students who have violated the behavioral compact have been held accountable,” Cornell spokesman John Carberry said in a statement.

Some say students should not shoulder all the blame for their transgressions: “Universities asked them back,” said Lauren Kilgour, a doctoral candidate at Cornell who two weeks ago co-wrote an op-ed titled “Don’t Make College Kids the Coronavirus Police.”

Kilgour said students just figuring out adulthood are being forced into tough positions as peer monitors and stewards of public health. She worries college environments built on trust and community will be upended by the threat of punishment brought on by fellow students. And she wonders if covid-19 rules could become weaponized in other rivalries and disputes.

“What we see happening … it’s kind of exactly what we were trying to get at in our op-ed,” she said.

Broughton reported Zhang last week, after a friend sent her a picture of a private Snapchat story, a post available only to select friends. A video circulated, too, showing students clustered maskless around two people arm-wrestling on the floor. A woman resembling Zhang squishes together with other people for a selfie at the end.

Zhang says it was all shared with a small circle of people — including a longtime friend who passed it on to students.

Students shouldn’t be the ones enacting justice,” she said.

By both Zhang and Broughton’s accounts, the two students are not friends, tangling on social media over the summer. Broughton says she’s not a fan of Zhang’s TikTok presence, calling “the whole college advice genre” misleading and criticizing the services she promotes. Zhang says she’s giving free counsel and doesn’t pressure anyone into spending money.

But Broughton says she was concerned about the community when she turned Zhang in over her Snapchat. Her friend vented over text about Zhang’s other alleged misdeeds — “haven’t seen her with a mask on at all,” a suggestion Zhang disputes — and soon Broughton had emailed the vice president for student and campus life.

Then, this weekend, students confronted Zhang in the Class of 2024 GroupMe, according to images shared with The Washington Post.

“it’s j that i’ve been in q since january (not an excuse) and i went against my better judgement, and i’m rlly ashamed,” Zhang wrote back, saying that “snapchat text is really easy to edit” and denying that she’d said words attributed to her. But the backlash would only intensify, quickly spilling beyond GroupMe.

“What’s her tikotk @ I’m tryna bully,” someone wrote, adding a smiley face.

“LMFAO,” Broughton responded, in messages she says were lighthearted and not meant to encourage viciousness. “Not trying to condone bullying but just look up her name and you’ll find it quick”

Zhang went on TikTok on Tuesday to say her words had been taken out of context — the Snapchat about people who “wouldn’t have been invited anyway,” she claimed, was based on her own experience of being shunned by friends for promoting social distancing in high school. Online commenters didn’t buy it, ridiculing the mea culpa as insincere and adding their names to the petition. At stake, they said, was their health, the health of Ithaca, their chance at a halfway normal year and their tuition.

“This student is not mature and responsible enough to be away from home. Her reckless, careless behavior is placing others lives at risk. Get her out of my community!” one person commented.

Broughton said expulsion might be too harsh and signed the petition mainly to push Cornell into a strong response. But she notes that Zhang has hundreds of thousands of people following her journey through college.

Watching her rocky start, even one of Zhang’s loyal followers said they would struggle to forgive.

Some people, both students and fans, have messaged Zhang privately to check in and say she does not deserve the firestorm, according to images provided to The Post. “I believe you can grow, learn, and become a stronger person through this and I WANT to see you do that,” one Cornell student wrote to her Monday night.

Then there is the message Zhang says she got Wednesday from a stranger and deleted. She says it threatened to “beat her to a bloody pulp.”

Zhang said she thinks she’s been cruelly singled out. She speculated that people may be jealous of her following and “trying to get clout using my name.” Her friends on campus tell her often, she said, about other people breaking the rules at mask-less gatherings.

She says she has not reported any of what she has heard to the school.

I don’t want to get the facts wrong,” she said. “I don’t know for sure how many people are in those houses. I don’t know how many of them live together … And I don’t want to make assumptions that can potentially jeopardize another student at the university.”

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