By Arielle Taramasco and Nicholas Kjeldgaard
One cloudy day in February a PLNU student returned to his dorm to find his personal safe missing. He rushed to the Department of Public Safety to report the theft, but was informed it hadn’t been stolen, but was sitting in the office, confiscated as part of a series of room searches to crack down on illicit drugs.
On February 13, Public Safety searched several rooms in Nease and later several rooms in Hendricks, as directed by Residential Life.
Public Safety and Residential Life said they could not confirm details of the searches in order to protect the privacy of students.
“I opened my door and the first thing I noticed is there’s a huge blank spot on my desk,” said Ethan Risser, a freshman living in Nease Hall. “The first thing I thought was, ‘someone stole this.’”
After being informed by a staff officer that the safe was in their possession, the student asked to see a report or other documentation regarding the incident or why it had been confiscated. His request was denied.
“He informed me that he was under orders to have me open the safe and he would document it. He said I was required to open the safe,” said Risser. “I told him ‘I’m sorry, I don’t have to legally do that, and I’m going to decline’ because I’m protecting my right to privacy. It was my private property.”
At this point he still had not received any communication from a school official or staff member notifying him his room had been searched or his safe had been confiscated. Around 1:30 p.m. he received an email from Jeff Bolster, the Dean of Students at PLNU, simply asking him to meet with Megan Richardson, the Resident Director of Nease hall.
Six hours later he finally received an email informing him of the search.
In part it read, “on behalf of Residential Life and Public Safety, I would like to acknowledge that your room was searched today.” This was the first formal notice he had received about the search.
Later that night another email told him it was, “within the student conduct response policy to ask him to open his safe,” and “failure to cooperate is considerd [sic] an admission of guilt.”
After a search through the PLNU student handbook, “The Point” was unable to find this general policy, and the closest reference only regards a student refusing to take a breathalyzer or drug test.
Risser sent a lengthy response to Bolster, “[I said] I think you’re violating my rights, I don’t think this is legal to do, I see this as an unlawful search and seizure.”
He also said the incident was very disruptive, because he was missing classes to research PLNU’s policies and talk with his family’s lawyer.
“They went through every single one of my clothes,” said Risser. “I’ll be honest, I’m a messy person and I had a lot of clothes already on the floor, but I also had [folded stacks of clothes]. All of them were in a giant ball, my room was completely disrupted, my books were thrown on the floor.”
He also said another friend of his had every single book opened and even their shoes searched.
The apparent lack of a student handbook for the 2016-2017 school year added to the student’s confusion over PLNU’s policies regarding searches of dorm rooms.
“If they do not make the handbook for that year, that the student cannot access that, then how is the student supposed to know what the university can or cannot do?” Risser asked.
Bolster says this year’s handbook is still being reviewed by PLNU’s legal team, but until a new one is published students should refer to the last available handbook. While the dates haven’t changed, the 2015-2016 student handbook is the one referenced for any incidents on campus.
Early the next morning Bolster said Public Safety had seen a bag of marijuana through a hole in the student’s safe, and that his parents would be alerted since he had not cooperated.
A follow up with SentrySafe Customer Care, the brand of the safe in question, confirmed that some safe models do have mounting holes although the majority of models do not.
While Bolster said he could not comment on the February searches at all, an example he used revolved around refusing to open a safe.
“If you’ve got a safe in your room and as part of the search we need to open that safe and you refuse to do that, that is kind of registered as an admission of guilt,” said Bolster. “If you have a gun in that safe, we can’t just take you at your word, or if you have a brick of weed in there. That impase doesn’t happen very often, but when it does, unfortunately for the student we have to assume the worst … from a standpoint of health and safety.”
PLNU will also contact a student’s parents after there is a proven conduct violation, and Bolster says they can discuss the incident openly when there are health and safety issues at stake.
While Public Safety and Residential Life say this type of case does not happen often on campus, they do say most students are largely unaware of the policies in the student handbook.
“Often times they’ll read [the student handbook] if they find themselves in violation of it,” said Bolster. “Then it’s very interesting to them.”
Bolster says there isn’t really such a thing as “breaking” the handbook, instead it’s very relative. PLNU responds more on a case-by-case basis, as putting Scotch tape on your walls is very different than hiding illegal drugs.
PLNU has a lot of leeway when it comes to searching student rooms or vehicles on campus due to its status as a private university. Because Public Safety is not a sworn law enforcement entity and they operate on private property, PLNU says it reserves the following rights:
Reasonable entry and search situations (including in some situations viewing the contents of a student’s photographs and/or electronic devices) in which PLNU personnel will enter student rooms or vehicles parked on campus include, but are not limited to, instances in which there is reasonable cause to believe that:
- a university policy is being violated
- a student or other individual is a threat to themselves or others
- an emergency situation exists that requires the identification of a particular object to be located in the room or vehicle
- or safety inspection.
– PLNU’s 2015-2016 Student Handbook
During the application process, a student agrees to abide by the Community Living Agreement, which Bolster says is more comprehensive of the values in the handbook.
“When you apply and you want to be a part of [PLNU], in a sense you’re affirming your support of this agreement,” said Bolster. “So it’s a little more holistic than just the [student] handbook.”
Once Public Safety is told to search a student’s room by Residential Life, they’ll typically search everything.
“We may search above and beyond just a room,” says Kaz Trypuc, a supervisor at Public Safety. “Within [the area we’re told to search], we will search everything.”
Residential Life says these policies are in place to protect students and the PLNU community.
Typically a room search is conducted by Public Safety with an RD present. Bolster says while a student can be present for the search, it largely depends on the situation.
“We don’t have to bring the student in for [the search],” said Bolster. “If there’s some sense of urgency to it, particularly around a health or safety risk, like if there’s a report of a firearm we’re not going to wait around.”
Public Safety doesn’t usually have a hand in crafting the policy, but largely acts as an enforcement arm of the school.
“We’re brought in by either the Dean of Students or Residential Life,” said Trypuc. “They’ll contact us and essentially we’ll perform the search, identify and confiscate any contraband, and then the matter is ultimately theirs to resolve.”
The provision regarding student devices (such as a phone or laptop) was added last year, after previous instances of cyberbullying and stalking were reported to Residential Life.
“One student was secretly taking pictures of another person’s belongings,” said Bolster. “I think in that [incident] we had to pull some pictures off the student’s phone. The student gave us the phone thankfully and was cooperative.”
However, this does not mean PLNU can just search a student’s electronic devices, even if it believes a student has violated one of its rules.
When The Point reached out to legal experts regarding searches of student cell phones, we were referred to the ACLU of California’s website. It says a school has the right to confiscate a device if a student breaks a school’s guidelines for cell phone use, but cannot look through it unless the student gives them permission.
“If a school official asks to look through your phone, remember that you have the right to say no unless they have a warrant,” reads the ACLU’s website. “You should also use a screen lock to make sure that no one accesses your phone without your permission.”
These same protections also apply to tablets and laptops.
The right of a person to be secure in their electronic devices was also confirmed by the Supreme Court in 2014. In a rare unanimous decision, the court ruled in Riley v. California that even police officers need a warrant to search a person’s device.
How Public Safety deals with confiscated materials is also a case by case basis. Trypuc says depending on how the situation is resolved, confiscated items will either be destroyed or returned.
“If it’s alcohol we’ll pour it down the drain, if it’s a glass bong we’ll smash it and throw it away,” says Trypuc. “We’ve had larger quantities of marijuana or other things and we’ll call SDPD and they’ll take it away.”
Trypuc also said they are often processing a student conduct violation, not crafting a legal case, which changes how a search is done.
“What I understand … the burden of proof for a lot of this stuff is so much lower, the requirements for [that] process are so much lower,” said Trypuc. “It’s not a legal issue, it’s your enrolment at this university is contingent upon your compliance with these policies and if you don’t do it, the worse that can happen is you’re suspended or expelled.”
Depending on the violation, Residential Life may decide to work with students to find a solution to the problem. Trypuc said one student had brought a speargun to school, which isn’t illegal to have on a school campus, but violates the student handbook.
Bolster says Residential Life is now working with the students who spearfish to find a solution which is safe for everyone.
“Most of the time it’s an RA who’s seeing [items not allowed on campus],” said Bolster. “If it’s ever a situation where it’s something as dangerous as a speargun or BB gun, we’ll work with the student. We’ve even paid to ship stuff home for people.”
While there is leeway to deal with some incidents, it was not to be for Risser.
Just days after the initial search he was expelled from PLNU “for the on campus possession of marijuana and for failure to cooperate with university officials,” according to an email he received from Bolster.
Six hours later he received another email from Bolster, saying because of his “loud and disruptive behavior,” and an ongoing lack of cooperation, he is not allowed to return to PLNU’s campus without 72 hours notice and prior approval from Public Safety.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s been extremely stressful,” said Risser. “It scares me that they can do this kind of thing.”
The administration says it approaches these incidents out of concern for student’s safety, but Risser said even if he had been cleared in this investigation, he would have left the school based on how he was treated.