Emerson enforces sanctions for COVID violations in line with nearby colleges

The+Little+Building+on+a+rainy+day.

Media: Alec Klusza

The Little Building on a rainy day.

It was the first night out of college-mandated quarantine at the beginning of the fall semester. A group of half a dozen friends, all first-years living in Little Building, were chatting on Boston Common, soaking in their newfound college freedom.

They made small talk about the year ahead—what classes they’d take, aspirations they had, and dreams of eventually experiencing a normal college semester. 

“We were just chilling,” one student, a visual and media arts major, said. 

Within an hour, rain had moved in, cutting their plans short. The group, not yet done with their night, moved to a standard single dorm room on the fourth floor of Little Building. 

The room, made to fit a twin XL bed, a one-person desk, a dresser, and little else, was now full of six students all crammed together. Emerson’s COVID-19 safety guidelines prohibit gatherings of that size. 

We stand for community, fact-based journalism. What do you stand for?

Some things in life are essential; they touch us every single day. Good journalism is one of those things. It keeps us in the know as we hurry through our busy lives.

“There were three or four of us in the dorm, and the guy that we were with left,” another first year, a theatre and performance major involved in the incident, said. “He came back with this other girl who none of us knew that he met on his floor, like, five minutes before.”

Those first-year students, two of whom spoke to The Beacon on the condition of anonymity due to privacy concerns, are now on disciplinary probation for the fall 2020 semester. That means they can’t hold on-campus jobs, remain on campus after residence halls close, return to campus before residence halls reopen, or hold specific roles in student organizations this semester.

Each must complete a disciplinary project that raises awareness about the consequences of breaking COVID-era safety guidelines. One student opted for a sticker campaign. Another decided to create a bulletin board on social distancing. Both projects are due to be turned in to the Office of Community Standards and posted around the Little Building before Thanksgiving. 

The August incident offers insight into Emerson’s handling of COVID-19 safety violations, and echoes similar stories that have popped up on college campuses across New England. There, gatherings have forced administrators vying to contain the virus to enforce punitive measures on students. 

Other colleges, though, have taken more aggressive approaches. (Emerson administrators have declined to comment on specific instances of COVID guideline violations due to privacy concerns.)

Northeastern University, for example, dismissed eleven first-year students on Sept. 2 for congregating in the same room at The Westin Hotel. The university’s COVID policy strictly states students may not have any additional persons in their assigned residential spaces. These students’ tuition was not refunded, but was credited to their accounts for future semesters at the university.

Boston University saw a similar incident after a weekend party in early October caused six first year students to receive deferred suspensions for the Fall 2020 semester. The party consisted of 20 students—all were disobeying COVID protocol, and some were drinking underage.

Harvard suspended three freshmen after a dorm room party at Mather House two weeks ago. 

The incident reported by The Beacon came about quickly. Few were thinking about the dangers of meeting up in a large group in the midst of a pandemic. 

“I was like, ‘Oh, yeah, there are kind of a lot of people here,’” the VMA major said. “But I was not thinking, and I just kind of brushed it off.” 

The college’s “Return to Campus Guide” says “residents can have no more than one” guest in single-person dorms. Those in suites may only have three guests at a time, and all must follow COVID guidelines for social distancing and mask wearing.

With a surplus of people, things quickly went south. The newest arrival to the gathering announced that she had brought alcohol—specifically Twisted Teas. 

“Two people were drinking and the rest were sitting and talking, and then someone said the word alcohol,” the VMA major said. “And that’s when the [resident assistants] knocked and were like ‘Open the door’.” 

Another person who attended the gathering said no one drank any alcohol but that there was alcohol in the room. 

Within seconds, their not-so-socially-distanced get-together was busted. 

“The RAs heard from the outside that somebody said ‘alcohol’,” the theatre and performance major said. “So they knocked on the door, they came in, told everybody to leave the room. Everybody left, they took our IDs and took pictures of them.” 

The first-years all received emails from the Office of Community Standards sometime in the next few days, instructing them to meet with a college official via Zoom to discuss disciplinary actions. 

“She [Director of Community Standards Julie Rothhar-Sanders] talked through the whole scenario and asked us exactly how it happened from our perspectives,” the theatre and performance major said. “And then, we got our emails about how we would be punished for what happened.” 

The college collectively charged the group with four counts: alcohol possession, alcohol consumption, disobeying community standards, and putting other students at risk. Eventually, the office only charged students with the specific counts for which they were found responsible. 

Rothhar-Sanders, whose office imposes sanctions on students who violate college policies, said she handles each offense differently, looking at the “risk factor” for specific situations to determine the proper discipline.

“It really depends on what the incident is, any prior conduct history, what was actually happening,” Rothhar-Sanders said. “So every incident is very, very different. For COVID policies, people can get a formal warning. People can be placed on disciplinary probation. It’s very clear in the campus community compact that folks can look at things like separation from the college [or] suspension.”

Her office is committed to making sure these incidents are as few and far between as possible in order to ensure the health of Emerson students, faculty and staff, she said.

“We take these kinds of COVID violations very seriously and have a very impactful conversation with anybody that meets with me because we’re trying to limit the spread.”

Rothhar-Sanders, to protect students’ privacy, declined to tell The Beacon if any additional students have faced COVID-related disciplinary measures this semester. 

The experience “was just not fun,” the VMA major said. “I didn’t sleep, like, at all, literally. It was just not an enjoyable experience.”