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This is a multi-part opinion series about Butler University’s back-to-school plan amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.
Sarah Fritz was in the middle of a Zoom class when Butler’s dean of students threatened to suspend her.
On Sept. 25, Fritz, a junior political science major, picked up her buzzing phone and was greeted by Martha Dziwlik. Fritz said Dziwlik told her — with very little preamble — that she was facing suspension if she stayed put in her CTS apartment.
Fritz had tested positive for COVID-19 hours earlier after a small gathering of nine friends ended in a trip to a Walgreens drive-thru testing facility. Fritz called the university to report her positive test, and received a bewildering mixture of protocols she was supposed to follow.
“I called Butler and reported it to the Health Center, and then at first they told me I could stay in my apartment,” Fritz remembers the Health Center telling her. “And so I was like ‘okay, cool,’ because I live in CTS. And I was like ‘okay thanks, awesome.’ So I just stayed there. I had another Zoom class to go to. So I went on that, and then another person from the Health Center called me and told me I had to go isolate in Ross immediately.”
Fritz was focusing on the lecture, and — after alerting the representative on the phone that she needed to pay attention to her professor — hung up the phone and returned to class. Dziwlik called her shortly after.
“[Dziwlik] was like, ‘you have to self-isolate in Ross, or you do face suspension,’” Fritz remembers Dziwlik telling her. “I was like, ‘hold on. You guys told me I could stay in CTS, I thought that was okay.’ I would go self-isolate, I just didn’t know, you know?”
Fritz was never suspended, but Dziwlik wasn’t bluffing when she threatened her. Universities everywhere are blaming students for their role in spreading COVID-19 on their campuses and in their communities — and Butler is wholeheartedly on board.
Students are being punished for quintessentially collegiate behavior, and while no one is denying the behavior is reckless, anyone with a cursory understanding of student comportment could have predicted it. Syracuse University suspended 23 first-year students due to what they deemed “reckless” and “selfish” behavior. Penn State suspended a fraternity for partying without masks. Purdue University suspended 36 students for hosting a party 24 hours after the president banned off-campus parties. For its part, Butler’s administration has found a number of ways to ream students out for their ostensible sins.
Email seems to be the university’s preferred means of criticizing the student body. Messages from several administration members have faulted students for Butler’s innumerable woes. An Aug. 18 correspondence from Frank Ross, the Vice President for Student Affairs, is one of the standout emails of the bunch. His message to students included a section, ironically titled “Our Fight Against COVID-19 is a Shared Responsibility,” which placed the onus for a new COVID-19 cluster squarely on students. Audacious, given the embarrassingly-inadequate health and safety plan Ross co-championed.
“We have already seen several examples of COVID-19 clusters occurring on other campuses due to students attending parties, not wearing masks, and neglecting social distancing,” Ross wrote. “This is selfish and irresponsible behavior. Breaking protocols and health guidelines will lead to spikes in COVID-19 cases and jeopardize the in-person campus experience for everyone. We can do better at Butler!”
What Butler has failed to recognize is that foisting every bit of blame for the university’s problems on the students is, in reality, a massive failure at the institutional level. It’s been proven time and time again that blaming people for their behavior amidst a pandemic is the worst possible thing institutions can do to slow the spread of a disease.
Julia Marcus, American public health researcher and infectious disease epidemiologist at Harvard University, sees punitive measures as one of the greatest obstacles to effectively curbing disease transmission — COVID-19 is only the latest proof of the matter. As a freelance writer for The Atlantic, Marcus has implemented lessons learned from the HIV epidemic in the early 1990s to the prevention of COVID-19 transmission on college campuses in her recent writing. Criminalizing or punishing a patient for contracting a viral disease, Marcus said, has the opposite intended effect: rather than deter behavior, the patient is more likely to withhold health information for fear of punishment.
“I understand the instincts on trying to crack down on parties,” Marcus said. “But threatening and punishing students for socializing is not going to help with public health efforts on campuses. When we shame and punish people for their risky behavior, it doesn’t tend to deter that behavior. It actually just tends to deter disclosure. So, what I expect will happen is that students will continue to gather, they will just be more careful about not disclosing their gathering, or any symptoms, or potential exposure to school administration.”
Adding insult to injury is the administration’s apparent proclivity for shaming students, regardless of whether the rules have actually been broken. Some students who were subjected to informal conduct meetings at the beginning of the academic year remember Dziwlik accusing them of breaking rules, when they were adamant that they did not.
Talle Corrigan, a senior journalism major, attended a social gathering on Aug. 16. After several of the partygoers were found to have contracted COVID-19 via Butler’s testing program on Aug. 18, Dziwlik contacted them on Aug. 23. In an email, Dziwlik informed them that they were subject to informal student conduct meetings, citing possible violations of Student Commitment for Personal and Community Well-Being, University Rules of Conduct and Residence Life Policies. Leading up to the meeting, the concoction of living through a pandemic, suffering from the harsh effects of COVID-19 herself, and the possibility of getting kicked off the tennis team overwhelmed Corrigan.
During the conduct meeting, Corrigan asked why the hearing was happening in the first place in what she deemed was the nicest way possible; she didn’t want to anger Dziwlik, who was “on a bit of a power-trip,” Corrigan said. After all, Corrigan and the other partygoers, Corrigan told Dziwlik, could not technically be punished for failing to wear masks, and the total number of people at the party never exceeded 10.
“[Dziwlik] just almost had her own version of the story and was trying to tell me that version, I felt like, but I obviously was there so I knew what was happening the whole time,” Corrigan said. “She was trying to intimidate us the whole time. Two of my roommates were accused of being there, and they weren’t there. But in her meeting with me, she mentioned how she didn’t understand how they got involved if they weren’t even there. I think that, at that point, they were trying to make examples of us, which I totally understood, which was really sh*tty, and they were trying to scare all of us.”
The name-and-shame routine hit an unprecedented low when Butler administrators pulled the plug on an in-person start to the school year. On the night of Aug. 23, Butler hosted an hour-long webinar, called the “Urgent Fall Semester Update,” that served more as a round-table roast than it did an informational webinar. After an oft-repeated mention of his daily campus strolls with Daisy, Danko laid full blame on Butler students, citing “some very poor decisions by some of our students and some behaviors that have gotten beyond what we would have hoped for our campus” as the cause of Butler’s case spike.
Dziwlik took it a step further.
“You know we’re not going online because the faculty couldn’t figure out how to teach classes or because Residence Life didn’t know how to move people in or Health Services couldn’t give shots,” Dziwlik said. “The only reason we’re having this come right now is because there are enough students that don’t think the rules apply to them.”
The urgent fall semester update offended Louise Irpino, a junior English creative writing major.
“Maybe it wasn’t [the administration’s] intention when they deferred all the blame onto the students, but I think they definitely need to take some accountability as well,” Irpino said. “[During] the webinar, they didn’t really answer anything, they didn’t clarify anything, they just kind of put all the blame on us and were just like: ‘We don’t want to take your money, that’s not us,’ when it obviously is in some cases, because in the end, a university is a business, and that’s how they make their money.”
It doesn’t take a career faculty member to know students will continue to party, regardless of the risk. And that’s exactly the issue: the rational part of a human brain does not fully develop until age 25, according to the University of Rochester Medical Center. While adults think with their prefrontal cortex — or the rational part — young adults think with their amygdala — or the emotional part. Plus, if we’re being honest, we all know that there are certainly Butler students out there who can’t even manage amygdala-based thought.
Sherry Pagoto, a clinical psychologist at the University of Connecticut, created an online focus group study on Twitter which asked Connecticut students about COVID-19 prevention strategies on campus and what they are willing to do to keep campus safe; it concluded that they sought empathy, not punishment. She referenced the psychological approach known as “risk perception,” the conclusions people draw about the severity of a risk. Pagoto said it is natural that younger adults are likely to “take more risks” than older adults — even in a pandemic.
“I don’t even think it’s necessarily the 18 to 23 year olds,” Pagoto said. “I think if you took 40 and 43 year olds and had them all live together and quarantine and follow these rules, you would have some problems too. [But] younger adults are going to be higher on risk-taking. [College students] can also see that people their age have somewhat lower risk of mortality and complications from COVID.”
To put it bluntly, young people are incapable of accurately assessing risk. So for adults with actual risk-assessment capabilities to bring students back to campus and then expect perfect compliance is a devastating display of ignorance, or callousness — or maybe a bit of both.
Morgan Kohler, a senior elementary education major, echoed Irpino’s sentiments about the fall update. To her, Butler’s mission to bring students back represents an embarrassing oversight and fundamental misunderstanding of our socially-deprived, 20-something-year-old community.
“I roll my eyes to that,” Kohler said. “Because really? You don’t have to be an education or psychology major to know. I haven’t seen my friends since March. So, really? Really, did you not think people are gonna go to parties? You can put as many rules into place and they will just be broken. Really? 18-year-olds do what they want, and they want to be with their friends, and you’re trying to blame them for not following the rules? Granted, probably about 90% of us are following the rules, but that 10% is here because they haven’t seen their friends, they want to get back in touch with people, they want to live the college life. There’s multiple things that Butler and other colleges around the world should have taken into consideration that college students are going to do anyways whether you tell them not to or not.”
That’s only the tip of the iceberg. In the Urgent Update panel, Rhonda Jackson, Interim Director of Butler Health Services, said the contact tracing team was encountering a problem: after testing positive for COVID-19, students were not being truthful about their close contacts with the contact tracing team, likely because they were afraid of the repercussions of reporting.
“It’s not a punitive thing, it’s a safety thing,” Jackson said of the university protocol in the Urgent Update panel. Jackson says one thing, but Dziwlik seems to be doing exactly the opposite.
Blaming and shaming is a slippery slope that causes problems down the line, and Butler is belatedly recognizing said consequences. The more the university blames and punishes students for contracting and spreading COVID-19 through social gatherings, the less likely they are to report private health information to contact tracers, Marcus said.
“The more that the infection is stigmatized, the less people will want to disclose,” Marcus said. “And on a campus, you have an added layer of punishment, where students are being told ‘you will be suspended or thrown off campus if we find out if you have attended a party of a certain size or hosted a party.’ … So, I think this is a tough situation, because I think there needs to be some accountability for students who are putting their community at great risk, but I also think public health experts need to be independent of punitive measures, and in this case, colleges — almost universally actually — that colleges have linked public health efforts with discipline and I think that will fail.”
The administration’s shame tactics, particularly Danko’s mention of “non-compliant behaviors” in an Aug. 28 email, bewildered A. David Paltiel, a Yale mathematics professor who published a mathematical model in late July tracking COVID-19 cases on college campuses.
“Due to ‘non-compliant behaviors?’ Student partying? Students not getting tested? What does ‘non-compliant behaviors’ mean?” Paltiel asked. “How does [Danko] know that? Just because they’ve cracked down doesn’t mean that they know for sure that it was the student behavior that did this. The blaming and shaming is so immediate and so knee-jerk on these guys’ parts, it’s really pissing me off. That’s their problem! … If the whole safety and integrity of my return policy depends on your complying with basically living like a monk, hermetically sealed, you know, on some Himalayan mountain-top for the next four months, that’s not much of a plan is it?!”
Even experts within the university remain critical of the administration’s gleeful crackdown on social students. Ogbonnaya Omenka, a Butler public health professor, also works as a consultant for Butler’s contact tracing team. As an expert epidemiologist, Omenka noted that it’s impossible to universally link social gatherings and parties to increased infections.
“I can tell you that from research,” Omenka said. “It’s possible to have parties and to come out [without COVID-19]. It’s important to expand the narrative so it’s not just, ‘oh, because you gathered, everybody’s gonna die.’ You know, it’s not that straightforward.”
“The bias to use only what we know” and “to criticize what’s going wrong,” Omenka said, is clouding Butler’s judgement.
Jackson cited social distancing guidelines, particularly “distance” and “duration,” as reasons why students are punished for attending social gatherings. She said she believes the chances of contracting COVID-19 elsewhere in the community — at work or at the grocery store, for example — is less likely because social distancing can be more easily maintained than at a social gathering.
“Say if Rhonda got COVID, Rhonda can get COVID from work, Rhonda can get COVID from going to the store, but my chance is less likely to get it from work or going to the store, if I maintain my social distance,” Jackson said in the Sept. 18 interview with The Butler Collegian. “But if I’m in close quarters and I’m not maintaining that social distance, am I at higher risk? Yes, I am.”
According to Omenka, however, attributing the spread of COVID-19 to partying students is both unfair and scientifically inaccurate, given the high number of confounding variables. While students can contract and spread COVID-19 at parties, there are plenty of other places where students could unwittingly contract the virus.
Many Butler students head off campus for internships — business majors have 240 required hours to fulfill, which is more than enough off-campus time to catch and carry COVID-19 to campus. More Butler juniors and seniors are living off-campus than ever, which means more interaction with the off-campus community, who may not abide by state social distancing or mask mandates. In Atherton dining hall, color-coded markings are painted six feet apart on the floor and plexiglass barriers have been installed on tables, but lunch and dinner rushes render it nigh-impossible to physically distance.
“What about the stuff that we don’t know?” Omenka asked. “There are parts of human behaviors that we may not even be aware of that can be the big problem. Something could be happening on Broad Ripple that we don’t have any control over, and then you go to Broad Ripple to buy food. Everybody’s talking about how ‘if only college students could just sit in one place.’ But that’s not the only reason. We don’t even have any evidence in terms of when we test students and we say we see that ‘oh yeah, they attended parties last week.’ How do we know that that’s where they got it? They could have gotten it from other places. There’s really no scientific evidence backing up our suspicions of where people get COVID-19.”
The blame-and-shame method unilaterally foists the onus onto the Butler student community, but even students who are doing everything right have fallen ill, making the Butler-branded vitriol that much more painful.
The situation of a junior healthcare and business major — who wishes to remain anonymous — offers a perfect example; in fact, she had been working for the university when she tested positive. The student contracted COVID-19 while helping her younger brother and his suitemates move in on Aug. 18. Four days later, her mom called to tell her that her brother and suitemates had tested positive. By then, the student — who had been working as a Student Orientation Guide — had attended four days’ worth of Welcome Week events. Her subsequent positive test result was panic-inducing, and the student couldn’t help but fear for the people she’d unwittingly exposed.
Alex Kuhn, a junior statistics, computer science and music data triple major, also worked as a Student Orientation Guide, and interacted with the anonymous student during Welcome Week. He and the anonymous student tried to report the exposure to the university — with the help of Meg Haggerty, the New Student and Family Programs Director — but were quickly and decisively silenced.
“When we as a collective tried to contact [Health Services], they shut us up pretty immediately, and sent us back to our SOGlets, like the next morning we were in a classroom with our SOGlets,” Kuhn said.
The student’s SOG group was neither tested nor traced, because, as Rhonda Jackson told the Butler student, they maintained six feet of distance and wore masks. While she was correct in following CDC guidelines — they did not recommend tests for second-hand exposure at the time, but have since changed course — the lack of communication has caused confusion for students like Kuhn.
You’re damned if you follow the rules, and damned if you don’t, apparently.
In spite of the campus confusion, there’s one thing for which Butler can be counted upon: baiting prospective students. Butler’s unending hunt for fresh funding means they’ll do anything, including breaking their own rules to bring potential first-years to campus.
The same day in-person classes started, Sept. 7, Butler started hosting on-campus visitor groups for prospective Butler students. Though Butler “encouraged” groups to limit their capacity to three people, there have been sightings of groups containing 11 people or more — which, for those of you counting, is more than the 10-person “social gathering” threshold for students. Groups are required to fill out a health survey and record their temperature — a requirement that was only added to the visiting process after three weeks of classes, to be clear — but don’t have to be tested before touring the campus.
Students, meanwhile, are strongly discouraged from having visitors on campus, even including family members, and are also strongly discouraged from going home for fear of bringing the virus back to campus with them. Can we say double standard, folks?
Brent Rockwood, the Vice President and Chief of Staff, said the university is looking to cut back on unnecessarily-dangerous situations.
“It’s about risk,” Rockwood said of social gatherings in a Sept. 18 interview. “You have a situation where students are congregating in groups above 10 people — and we’ve seen cases such as that, where it’s been well above 10 people, social distancing is not maintained, people are not wearing face-masks, well that’s a very high-risk situation for those individuals and then everyone else after that exposure that they come in contact with.”
Since indoor spaces, especially those with poor ventilation, are breeding grounds for COVID-19, it is essential that Butler offers outdoor alternatives to indoor activities. As temperatures drop, the likelihood of spreading COVID-19, along with other typical seasonal viruses, increases. As such, Marcus recommends the administration take a “harm-reduction” approach: managing behaviors instead of revamping them in an attempt to lessen the negative social and physical consequences.
“Instead of just telling students what they can’t do, tell them what they can do, and make sure that there is something that they can do to socially connect them, and having fun,” Marcus said. “Essentially, opening your campus without adequate testing or contact tracing to contain an outbreak that we all knew was inevitable, then blaming your students for it, is unconscionable, and punishing students is not going to get them to stop socializing. So what I would recommend instead is offering safer alternatives and approaching students with empathy and compassion and supporting them, instead of threatening them.”
Paltiel suggested that the university provide additional funds to fraternities, sororities and student government for party tents and space heaters. Paltiel suggested Butler should turn a blind eye to drinking activities they would normally police; while keeping behavior within reasonable parameters, physically-distanced party activities like beer pong, beer die and cornhole should all get a free pass for the time being.
“I mean, the lack of compassion and offering up of low-risk, realistic alternatives to keep you on campus and doing safe things rather than going to the frat house down the road to do jello shots in an unventilated, unmasked basement, you know, it’s just like, that’s their problem!” Paltiel said. “[The Butler administration] should be making resources available to you, not just saying, ‘you should be a grown-up, and your non-compliance is the problem’ — no, actually it’s your mistake opening up the school and not making sufficient resources available to the students to behave themselves… I don’t really care about the beer pong game on the quad, I’m trying to avoid the super-spreader event that takes place indoors, unmasked, unventilated.”