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What has changed?

Editorial Board | Friday, September 3, 2010

One topic has dominated campus conversation for the past week, and it has nothing to do with the start of fall classes, the Dillon Hall pep rally or Brian Kelly’s new spread offense.

Two weeks into the school year, more than 70 students have already been arrested on charges related to off-campus alcohol consumption — a number so alarmingly high that University officials and local law enforcement have begun conversations aimed at mediating the growing tension.

The first question has to be, why? What has changed since we left school in May that has caused the number of off-campus arrests — not citations — to rise so rapidly?

There’s been nothing to suggest off-campus student behavior has drastically changed. The laws haven’t changed, either; underage drinking is still illegal, and individual police officers can still use their discretion when deciding whether to arrest or cite those in violation of the law.

Lt. Tim Cleveland of the Indiana State Excise Police told The Observer that if students are not cooperative, were previously arrested for underage drinking or are “too intoxicated to walk,” the police generally choose to incarcerate.

He also said those who cooperate with police are more likely to be cited, not arrested.

But it seems highly unlikely that all of the 70-plus students fell into one of those three categories.

So, we return to the question: Why? What has changed?

It seems that the only change lies in how police officers have exercised their discretion.

Fr. Tom Doyle, vice president for Student Affairs, may have summed it up best when he told The Observer Wednesday, “Things just seem different than they have in previous years.”

Things do seem different, and students have been left in the dark as to why. If local law enforcement has changed its policies or attitudes, they have not communicated these changes to students — at least not through words.

Even more concerning than the recent trend for officers to arrest, not cite, violators is the palpable sense of fear and uncertainty that these incidents have instilled in the student body.

Campus is buzzing about this issue. It is by far the most talked-about topic in class and in the dining halls. But while students have plenty to say about it, most are baffled as to what they should do.

Several students who have had interactions with law enforcement brought their stories to Doyle and others within the University and student government, yet only four have been willing to go on the record with The Observer.

The fact that these students are hesitant to have their names in print demonstrates the atmosphere of fear that pervades campus. This should not be the student body’s foremost feeling heading into the first home football weekend.

Doyle said he has noticed a pattern in student stories where “their rights or their dignity is being violated,” which prompted the University to engage in discussions with law enforcement and city officials. But where will those discussions lead — and, almost as important, when will students know the results?

There appears to be no overnight solution for a problem that seemed to arise overnight.

While we hope the recent “us vs. them” mentality will eventually subside as the University becomes more involved with local officials, students are still left in a precarious position — especially heading into the first home football weekend.

Doyle’s advice: “I think we all have to reflect on what’s happened the past two weekends and say the prudent course of action for students would be to be model citizens in the community, especially those who are not of age.”

Those may not be the words some students want to hear. But with so much uncertainty, what else are we to do?