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Changes proposed to Scot’s Key privacy policy

Campus Council (CC) Conduct Committee holds panel to discuss clarity in guidelines for searching student living spaces

Mackenzie Clark

Editor in Chief

The Campus Council (CC) Conduct Committee held a forum in the Lowry pit on Nov. 14 to discuss proposed changes to the College’s privacy policy in The Scot’s Key. 

The panel was moderated by CC Chair Annabelle Hopkins ’19, and included Associate Director of Security and Protective Services (SPS) Joe Kirk, as well as members of the CC Conduct Committee: Gender and Sexual Diversity Representative Myra Praml ’19, Staff Representative Becky Frybarger, Faculty Representative Niklas Manz, At-Large Representative Nick Shiach ’20 and Director of Student Rights and Responsibilities Mitch Joseph.

The forum began with a discussion of problems with the current policy. Shiach noted that earlier this year he identified this section of the Scot’s Key as one that seemed particularly weak. “The problem with it from my perspective is that it made it look like things are happening that aren’t happening,” said Shiach at the forum. “It makes it look like the College can do whatever they want, whenever they want.”

The current privacy policy states, “Searches of College-Owned Property: In accordance with the U.S. Constitution and the case law interpreting it, the College has the right to conduct searches of College-owned or College-controlled property (e.g., residence hall rooms, offices, desks, lockers, toolboxes, vehicles, computers, e-mail files). During room inspections or searches, the College reserves the right to confiscate items found to be in violation of established policies and regulations (e.g., alcohol or other drugs).”

“I know that’s not how things work at the College, nor is it how things should work, so I wanted to bring the policy in line with the procedure and things that are already happening to make sure that students know their rights and that their rights are being respected,” said Shiach. 

The Conduct Committee worked closely with Joseph as they drafted the proposed policy. “Mitch helped us a lot by pulling in some language that he worked with at his previous institution,” said Shiach. “We wanted to make sure there is a procedure for if someone from SPS thinks they have a reason to go into your room to check for a policy violation, but if the student doesn’t give voluntary permission for that, there is a procedure there to make sure there is documentation of why the search is happening and what it’s looking for.”

 A section of the proposed policy states, “Residents will be asked to give voluntary permission for the search. However, if the permission is not given, College officials may obtain permission for the search from the Vice President of Student Affairs and Dean of Students (or their designee). This permission will be documented with Security and Protective Services for later reference by involved parties.”

“It’s not a change, it’s just outlining and spelling out in more detail what happens,” said Joseph. He also emphasized collaboration between SPS and the Division of Student Affairs when making sure that approval and documentation are in order when investigating a suspected policy violation. They wanted the policy to clearly define the parameters of when someone can enter a space to do a search, what they can do during the search, how the search is documented or reported and what happens after the search is completed.

Shiach highlighted the importance of clarity in the proposed policy and how this certainty might bring comfort to students who are confused by the current policy. “I feel like it’s more clear now,” said Shiach. “I have a right to reasonable privacy in my own space. It’s clearer and it should help people feel more comfortable.” 

Praml emphasized the important clarification of a student’s right to refuse. “One of the most important things about this policy is that it is outlined clearly that students are allowed to say, ‘No, I don’t want you coming into my space right now,’ and they won’t be punished for that, but there is a procedure that will follow,” said Praml. “I think having more of a specific outline of how the process works is really good for incoming students as well as current students, and even parents and people in the community.” 

Joseph emphasized that both versions of the policy outline where SPS can search, but it is more clear about where the permission to search comes from. 

“It creates consistency so that students and officers know exactly what is expected of them and what they can and can’t do,” said Kirk, commenting on the importance of both SPS officers and the campus community being knowledgeable about these procedures.

Following the discussion of the new policy, Hopkins opened the floor to questions from the audience. 

One student asked for clarification on the phrase “interfere with normal college operation” in a line of the proposed policy that states, “A College official may enter and search on-campus premises if there is reason to believe that the premise is being used for illegal purposes, to violate the student code of conduct, to violate health or safety regulation or interfere with normal college operation.”

Joseph and Kirk responded that interference can range from situations involving reports of drug use to a blaring alarm clock, explaining that concerns to health and safety, as well as situations interrupting one’s ability to be a College of Wooster student, are considered disruptions of normal college operations.

During this portion of the forum, the panelists also addressed how the policy applies to shared living spaces. Kirk clarified that when SPS asks for a student’s permission to search, that permission applies to that student’s side of the room and not their roommate’s side.

Kirk also addressed the line of the proposed policy that reads, “However, when items are in ‘plain view’ (in open, commonly visible areas within the room) or when an area must be inspected or accessed for the normal performance of their duties, policy violations may be documented and forwarded to appropriate officials.” 

“We enter a room and we look at what’s in plain sight,” said Kirk. “If we feel like there’s something that creates a violation and we want to do a more complete search, we ask for permission to do a more complete search. If we don’t see anything, there is no reason to.”

Kirk also clarified what in the room can be searched if permission is given. “Typically it’s anything in the room,” said Kirk. “We ask for permission in those situations. I can’t force you to open something that is locked, but we’re going to recommend that, and if you say no, it will be documented that you were unwilling to unlock something.”

In regards to larger shared living spaces such as houses on campus, Kirk explained that SPS typically only searches the room in the house where the incident occurred unless the nature of a situation requires a search of multiple rooms. When dealing with common living spaces, SPS requests permission of all of the residents before conducting the search.

Director of Residence Life Nathan Fein also added that when Residence Life staff enter houses to respond to a situation, they go in pairs. Kirk and Fein explained that when there is a threat to health or safety, SPS or Residence Life staff can enter houses when none of the residents are present, but that this right is used sparingly. They emphasized that SPS needs permission to search houses, but not to enter them, however they do not enter houses without a reason to do so, such as a suspected policy violation or a threat to health and safety. If they have a reason to enter the house, once inside, the officer or staff member can do a plain view search of the space. 

One student asked about the protocol for digital searches, such as emails or documents on a computer. ”We have never done computer checks or looked up emails,” said Kirk in response. “That isn’t something we do. Typically, if it’s that serious of an incident involving that, the police would be involved.” Kirk also addressed searches of cars parked on campus and clarified that unless the incident to which SPS is responding took place in that vehicle, they do not typically search cars. Kirk emphasized that if it was necessary to search a vehicle, SPS would ask for the owner’s permission.

When asked about the protocol for searching a person, Kirk offered two scenarios, explaining that with a suspected policy violation like drug possession, SPS would ask for that person to empty their pockets and that person would have the right to refuse. However, if the situation involves a safety threat, such as a weapon, there is a different protocol.

Kirk also spoke about the role of the Wooster City Police (WPD), clarifying that since SPS officers are not police, they cannot legally handle confiscated drugs and paraphernalia. WPD has informed SPS in the past that SPS is required to disclose the name of the person the drugs and paraphernalia were confiscated from.

If a student wishes to report an incident that they feel was not handled properly, the panelists advised students to contact Kirk, Joseph or the Dean of Students Office.

CC is currently working on initiatives to educate the student body on various policies within the Scot’s Key, including the privacy policy. These initiatives include outreach through social media, email and the art wall, as well as adding information about policies to New Student Orientation. 

“We want to increase the accessibility of the Scot’s Key,” said Praml. “We want to make it more readable. We want to make sure that students are understanding it and seeing it as something they should understand.”

(Photo from CC Website)

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