About 40 University of North Texas students, many of them in Halloween costume, marched across the Denton campus last week in support of the legalization of marijuana and to raise awareness of a new group on campus, a chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. But many in the crowd were also there to protest the way UNT deals with marijuana — something they see as much more serious than a Halloween prank.
“If a student is caught with a joint, they get kicked out of campus housing and lose their cafeteria privileges,” said Erin Long, president of UNT NORML. “But if they’re caught drinking alcohol, they are given just a warning. Both are against the school rules, and both are illegal for underage people, so why are marijuana smokers being discriminated against?”
Students caught with even minuscule amounts of marijuana get booted almost automatically from on-campus housing, which means they also lose cafeteria privileges. Last school year, 47 students were asked to leave school dorms for pot possession; so far this year the tally is 18. To Long and her supporters, the difference between that punishment and the “just behave” warning that students receive for using alcohol in the dorms doesn’t seem fair.
School officials disagree. Elizabeth With, vice president of student affairs, agreed that alcohol violations are treated differently than marijuana infractions but said there is good reason for it.
“Alcohol is legal for use once a person reaches the age of 21. Marijuana is not legal for anyone, ever, in the state of Texas. We have zero tolerance for drug use, particularly in our residence halls,” she said. The policy, she said, has been in effect at UNT since before she arrived at the school 14 years ago.
However, Maureen McGuinness, assistant vice president for student affairs and the person who keeps track of student discipline, said the loss of dorm privileges for pot smoking is just school practice, not official policy. Years ago both the policy and the practice were harsher than they are now, she said.
“Up until six or seven years ago, you not only lost dorm privileges — and they are a privilege, not a right — but being caught with even one gram of marijuana was an automatic violation of the school’s code of conduct,” said McGuinness. “And the minimum sanction was automatic suspension from the university for a full semester, a note of the infraction in the student’s permanent record, as well as being ordered from housing. And that was official policy so it had to be enforced.”
That policy was changed when five students were caught sharing a joint and all of them had to be suspended, she said. But she added that, despite the weighty punishment of losing dorm and cafeteria privileges and being placed on probation, no first violation, even for marijuana, goes onto a student’s permanent record these days. She said she couldn’t remember anyone getting that second violation for a marijuana offense.
Students who have been kicked out of the dorms aren’t feeling the love. Two who spoke to Fort Worth Weekly asked that their names not be used.
“I was living in Kerr Hall, and one day there was a knock on my door, and the hall director said there was going to be a drug search of my room because marijuana stems had been found in the bathroom shared by two rooms,” said a student who moved from Austin to attend UNT this year.
She was given the option of staying or leaving during the search, and, if she had marijuana, to produce it before the search. She opted to leave and allowed her pockets to be searched before she did.
When she returned a short while later, she said there was a “confiscated property” form on her desk. “It said they’d found a marijuana pipe and a bag of marijuana stems. The pipe was mine, the bag of stems was not. That was made up.”
She was instructed to call the Student Center for Rights and Responsibilities to set up an appointment with a school drug officer. At the meeting she admitted to possession of drug paraphernalia but said she insisted the bag of stems was not hers.
“After confessing to the pipe possession, I was given two weeks to move out of the residence hall,” she said. “I’m also forbidden to visit the halls, sit on benches in front of them, or go to the cafeterias, and I’m on school probation for two years. And I was forced to live on campus to begin with, since all freshmen have to live on campus. And then they threw me out onto the street.” She felt lucky to find an apartment near the university but is still upset about the money she lost for the housing and food.
McGuinness would not discuss the specifics of that case but said students who are kicked out of dorms don’t lose money, with the significant exception of a $1,000 fine.
“When people move into the residence halls they sign a housing contract. When they break that by violating the rules of behavior, they are generally charged a $1,000 fee for breaking that contract. But if they’ve paid in advance for a semester, once we deduct the time they’ve used the room and charged that fee, as well as charged for any damages to the room, we return any leftover monies they paid. We do not obligate them to pay out the full contract they signed. We don’t ask for a single day more than they used it.”
Having marijuana on campus had even tougher consequences for a second student. The freshman, a former Tarrant County College student who will be a sophomore in January, left a residence hall cafeteria a few weeks ago to find his car surrounded by campus police.
“They told me that a K-9 had hit my car — smelled marijuana in it — and they forced me to open it. In the back they found about a gram of pot in a vacuum-sealed container,” he said. “A few minutes later I was in the back of a police car headed for the Denton County jail.”
He was charged with possession of less than two ounces of marijuana, a crime punishable in Texas by a fine of up to $2,000 as well as up to six months in jail, though his attorney, David Sloane of Fort Worth, said that the maximum fine and jail sentence are rarely assessed.
The college disciplinary process, not surprisingly, has moved faster than the criminal justice system. “About two days after I was arrested, I was told to have a meeting with a drug officer, who told me I’d be removed from housing and cafeteria privileges and banned from those places permanently under threat of criminal trespass,” the student said. “And then the school fined me $1,000 for breaking the housing contract, despite it being at their insistence. I’m also on school probation for a year. The worst part was they gave me only four days to move out of the hall.”
He too was able to find an apartment nearby. “I don’t know how they’re allowed to just walk through parking lots with drug dogs like they did without any suspicion or anything else to go on,” he said. “And they’ve got the K-9s all over the place at UNT.”
McGuinness said the use of drug dogs backs up the school’s zero-tolerance policy. But she added that the school’s policy is never to act as an intermediary for the police.
“When we find marijuana [in a dorm room], the police are called to take it, but they are not told whose marijuana it was,” she said. “They stay far enough away from the location that they don’t even know what room the contraband came from. They are close enough to help if anyone’s safety is compromised, but unless they’re called they will never know what room it was from, and so they’ll never be able to identify the student involved.”
On the other hand, in cases where the campus police are the ones who find students on campus with marijuana, it does becomes a criminal matter, she said.
McGuinness said she has no problem with the idea of removing students from campus housing for first infractions involving even small amounts of marijuana.
“What you’ve got to understand is that in residence halls, what one roommate does affects the other roommate’s ability to study and learn. Whether someone is getting drunk all the time or smoking pot all the time or even playing loud music all the time, those things interrupt someone else’s ability to study. And our mission is to do those things that help people with their academics, their ability to learn,” she said.
Sloane, who is also representing a second UNT student in a criminal case over marijuana use, said the difference in treatment between marijuana use and alcohol use is definitely unfair.
“The kids caught using alcohol have two or three chances before they are faced with a similar situation [to] those caught once with pot. And the kids don’t understand that difference. Well, to me it looks like there are simply so many kids caught with alcohol that the school couldn’t remove them all from the dorms. But that’s doesn’t make it fair or right.”
McGuinness acknowledged that no student has been kicked out of the dorms this year for alcohol use or playing loud music. “The difference is simply that alcohol will become legal for those kids to use once they reach the age of 21; for marijuana it will always be illegal,” she said.
Dana Moore, assistant dean of students at Tarleton State University, said the Stephenville school has no set policy on marijuana use. “We prefer to look at each situation individually. We look at the circumstance and the student and make our evaluation from there. Our students would never be kicked out of campus housing for a first marijuana offense as an automatic thing.”
She noted, however, that each campus in the state university system makes its own policies and sets its own practices with regard to student rule infractions. “So while I wouldn’t have that policy here, I’m not surprised to hear that someone else at a different school does it that way,” she said.