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UMass Amherst Students Decry Strict Code Of Conduct 05:24
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The University of Massachusetts Amherst was once derided as "ZooMass" for its party school image. These days, the university prides itself on having turned itself around after moving aggressively against unruly behavior. But students say UMass is going overboard, and they're pushing to change the school's strict Code of Conduct.

Desmond McHugh says he's not a bad student.

"I have a 3.7 GPA," McHugh said. "I have a 4.0 GPA within my major. I’m in the honors school. I’ve been on the Dean’s List every semester that I’ve been in the school."

But two weeks into his freshman year, McHugh ran into the UMass Code of Conduct. He was in his room with people who were drinking beer. A resident adviser saw them. They were fined $100 each and made to take an alcohol course. Having a beer can in his room was not McHugh's last breach.

"I think it’s in large part the administration’s attempt to continue to crack down on the 'ZooMass' image, but the problem is that 'ZooMass' left a long time ago."

Kyle Howard, UMass Student Government Assoc.

The skinny sophomore with a tuft of hair peeking out from under his Bruins cap was animated while recounting his story.

"At 1:03 an R.A. came and saw beer cans on the shower. There were five of us in the shower," McHugh said. According to McHugh, the R.A. wrote "all five people up for alcohol sanctions, which we thought was ridiculous. Just because there was a beer can on the floor does not mean that five of us were drinking, because we weren’t," he said.

Underage Drinking A National Problem

Two years ago — the last year for which it has statistics — UMass Amherst issued more than 4,000 sanctions to students, primarily for underage drinking.

Spokesman Ed Blaguszewski says binge drinking by college students is a concern across the country.

"Problem drinking really is widespread, and so this issue is not unique to UMass Amherst in any way," Blaguszewski said.

But the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, which has more undergraduates, hands down one-third the sanctions UMass does, in part because its rules are not as strict.

"We’re handing out sanctions for things as small as playing kickball in the hallway," said Kyle Howard, the UMass Student Government Association's attorney general. Howard oversees the Student Judicial Advisers, who counsel students charged with violating the student Code of Conduct.

Getting Rid Of The 'ZooMass' Image

"I think it’s in large part the administration’s attempt to continue to crack down on the 'ZooMass' image, but the problem is that 'ZooMass' left a long time ago," he said.

Howard wants a less stringent code, like the one at Michigan. It’s a university with a very different way of treating underage students who drink.

"It is certainly fair to say they don’t get punished. We don’t actually even use that word in our office," said Jay Wilgus, Michigan’s director of student conflict resolution.

Instead, the goal is to get students to figure out why they're drinking so much.

UMass touts the success of its strict rules. The university says in the last five years it has cut binge drinking by 30 percent.

The Case of Desmond McHugh

When the school found McHugh showering near beer cans, it placed him on housing probation. One more slip, and he'd be out.

That slip came last year. McHugh has a sleep disorder that makes him hard to awaken. He slept through a false fire alarm. Police officers tried to rouse him.

UMass Amherst student Desmond McHugh (Fred Thys/WBUR)
UMass Amherst student Desmond McHugh (Fred Thys/WBUR)

"Clearly, I wasn’t awake. Obviously, if I had seen a police officer in front of me and I had looked at him, I wouldn’t have just rolled over," McHugh said.

The officers told McHugh to get out of bed. When he didn't respond, one cop pulled him out and led him out the door.

The police say McHugh grabbed the door jambs and pushed one of them. He was charged with assault and battery on a police officer. McHugh says that's not possible.

"Basically, this officer, who I supposedly assaulted and battered, was, I should say, about 6-5, about 240 pounds. He was a monster," McHugh said.

McHugh weighs 140 pounds.

"And I’m, I think, 5-11, so for me to push this officer and make him take a step back, I probably would have needed a running start, especially after he was already restraining me."

McHugh says he doesn't remember any of this. Doctors wrote letters saying what happened that night was caused by his sleep disorder. But the deans told him the medical evidence was irrelevant. At his hearing, he was not allowed to cross-examine the police officer. He was found responsible for the assault and battery.

Students say it's common for an accused student to face a presumption of guilt that's almost impossible to overcome. The university says it's not a court of law.

McHugh was kicked out of the dorms. He can’t live on campus, but, he says, off-campus landlords check students’ records.

"So I can’t live on campus or off campus, pretty much, because of this," McHugh said. "I just feel like the judicial system at this school is set up to hurt kids."

Commission Works To Reform Student Code Of Conduct

A commission is working on reforming the Student Code of Conduct. Brandon Tower, the president of the Student Government Association, serves on the commission. He wants to make the code fairer and less punitive.

"I think it's time for a forward-thinking, a progressive and a sensible policy that doesn't adversely harm both the university and students," Tower said.

As a first step, Tower expects the commission to decide this week whether fines and mandatory counseling for underage drinking should be replaced by a written warning to first-time offenders.

Blagoszewski defends the counseling program.

"This program has really helped, and it has intervened early on, and got students to think about what the result of their behavior is, both on themselves and the community," he said.

The university calls its mix of counseling and sanctions fair and thorough, designed to have teaching moments and encourage good student behavior.

This program aired on March 8, 2011.

Fred Thys Twitter Reporter
Fred Thys reports on politics and higher education for WBUR.

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