Altered Law Leaves Students on Edge
Published: Friday, February 4, 2011
Updated: Monday, April 18, 2011 02:04
A newly passed measure granting D.C. police greater authority in responding to rowdiness has spurred much of campus to action, triggering a strong student outcry and forcing administrators to preempt a possible rise in student arrests.
Scott Stirrett (SFS '13), chair of DC Students Speak, a group advocating for student interests in the District, has helped spearhead student opposition to the Disorderly Conduct Amendment Act of 2010, which increases punishments for unreasonably loud or disruptive noisemaking during nighttime hours.
"We feel that there are more pressing crime issues in D.C.," Stirrett said. "[The Metropolitan Police Department] shouldn't be wasting time arresting college students for potentially annoying people when there are much more serious things to be dealing with."
At press time, DC Students Speak had rounded up over 1,050 signatures for a petition against the law, which also gave rise to a related Facebook event that had attracted 1,787 users since it was created Thursday.
"We think the rapid, positive response we've gotten from students is indicative that students are really concerned about the policy," Stirrett said.
As students speak out against the amendment, MPD has said it will apply the new law fairly in the field.
"While MPD will continue to work with individuals and communities to appropriately balance the rights of each, the new law makes it clear that a person who makes an unreasonably loud noise between 10 p.m. and 7 a.m. that is likely to annoy or disturb one or more other persons in their residences is violating the law and may be subject to arrest," MPD Chief Cathy Lanier said in a statement.
Despite the new amendment, the Student Neighborhood Assistance Program — an arm of the Department of Public Safety intended to reduce unruly student conduct off campus — does not plan to step up its presence in the neighborhoods surrounding campus, according to Rachel Pugh, director of media relations for the university.
Associate Director of DPS Joseph Smith said his officers will take a similar approach.
"While we are aware of the new legal restrictions, it should not significantly affect our patrol plans," Smith said.
Although university safety will not alter protocol, administrators have pledged to be proactive and have informed students that there may be new implications for their conduct off campus.
"Officers are being instructed to arrest on first contact; they will not necessarily provide a warning before making an arrest," Vice President for Student Affairs Todd Olson said in an email sent to students on Wednesday.
Unlike the many students alarmed by the amendment, Burleith resident Peter Metzger (COL '11) is not as concerned. Metzger and his housemates have been investigated for noise violations, once by SNAP and twice by MPD, for parties that Metzger says were within university regulations for registered parties — under 50 people, contained inside the house and in the backyard and ending by 2 a.m.
But because these guidelines do not apply to students living off campus, SNAP issued a noise violation to the group, leading to eight-week party ban. MPD gave out warnings on both occasions.
"The new policy doesn't change what I think we should be doing," Metzger said in an email. "Metro is actually the most chill enforcement of all. Any interaction that I've had with them has been relaxed. They seem to have a much higher standard for what is unacceptable noise."
Smith said that students should not have to dramatically alter their current habits to avoid penalties for rowdiness.
"I think it would be prudent for students to be cognizant of their noise levels — whether they are walking down the street or in their residences — from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. Apart from that, it really shouldn't affect them," he said. "If we all strive to be thoughtful, responsible and considerate neighbors, that should be enough to meet the standards within the amendment."
Moving forward, the university plans on working more closely with MPD and students to cut back on rowdiness and potential student arrests.
"[We] will continue our many proactive steps to work with students and MPD to address issues before they become a major concern," university spokeswoman Julie Bataille said.
Even so, some neighbors have said that they will continue calling MPD instead of summoning a university resource like SNAP to handle nighttime disruptions.
Both the Burleith Citizens Association and the Citizens' Association of Georgetown urge their members to call MPD rather than SNAP to report noise complaints.
"We found SNAP to not be effective," CAG President Jennifer Altemus said.
Loud parties have traditionally been cause for student-neighbor tension in the area. The BCA's leadership has told residents, via emails on its Listserv, to call 911 immediately when there is a disturbance instead of talking to student neighbors first.
"It becomes unbearable," said Lenore Rubino, BCA president. "People are on their lawns, they're vomiting, they're urinating, just sitting on the curb passed out. Next door to these students there are elderly, there are babies, there are people getting up for the work the next day. It's not appropriate. Otherwise, there wouldn't be laws against it."
But as some students speak out against the amendment, others have tempered their response, saying they simply intend to lay low from now on.
"I feel like it's very, very scary for a college student to be in an atmosphere where there are going to be these kinds of consequences," West Georgetown resident James Barnao (COL '11) said. "I'm all for having a good time. But it's not worth jeopardizing my future."
Given the more severe ramifications for noisy off-campus residents, Barnao had some advice for underclassmen.