Monday, May 10, 2010

Students Gone Wild

I've been dwelling for days on the article in the Record last weekend about students taking liberties on Albert Street.  Students are exposing themselves, urinating publicly, vomiting on the sidewalk, wandering on people's property, and simulating masturbation in front of shocked neighbours all in broad daylight.  When I first left home, my mom told me to never do anything I wouldn't want published on the front page of the paper.  Today, she'd update that to a Facebook warning.  But some of these guys posed for a photo..... 

We had a student house in our neighbourhood until recently.  One of the ladies that lived there left the house one day with some friends, got about three houses away, and squatted to pee on the boulevard in front of a family with kids sitting on the porch maybe ten feet away.

I was a student once, 25 years ago, and came away from it with many good stories.  University is a time for people to develop into leaders, but part of that might include periods of devolving into animals.   It's their first time away from home, and they need to feel wild and unconstrained.  It's a ritually liminal period in their shift from child to adult.  It's a time to push at boundaries.  But we're in big trouble if society doesn't push back strongly and consistently to restrain the acts of excess.   We need the energy and vibrancy of students in our city, but students need some help reigning it in.    
Back in the day, we had boundaries.  And in retrospect, it was the cops that set them firmly for us.

One letter to the editor on this issue is from a police officer who points a finger at Waterloo city council for not implementing stronger bylaws that can put a stop to this kind of behaviour.  The neighbours also claim the city is responsible for for the problem because they allowed too many lodging houses on one street in the first place.  I second Peter Foy's plea for tougher bylaws in the city.

As a student in the early 80s, I shared a house with a bunch of guys not too dissimilar from the type currently living on Albert Street. The difference is that anytime we had a party, the cops would show up at 11:00 to issue a $200 fine. At $3.35/hour, that was a week and a half's pay.  Worse than that, if we didn't shut things down, they'd be back thirty minutes later with another fine to add to the first one. Typically, at the second visit, they'd just stay until the house was empty constantly threatening more fines if we took too long.

We still had parties, but only three or four a year. We couldn't afford to have more than that. The rest of the time we kept it quiet, sent the rowdies packing early on, and stayed indoors.

Perhaps a $600 fine issued every thirty minutes, and arrests made for every single act of public indecency and public urination would help curb the partying.  Granted the bylaws need more teeth, and we'll likely need a few more officers on the force for an initial crack-down. I think it's worth it for the reputation, not just of the neighbourhood or the universities, but of my city.

This is one of those situations where I'm reminded of the famous lines by Martin Niemoller that sometimes starts, "First they came for the Jews...".  It's not enough for one small group of neighbours to take on city hall; they need backing from all of us.  If you have thoughts on the issue, take five minutes to phone or e-mail Brenda Halloran

But beyond the potential solutions, one line of reasoning from the students in the article really bothered me:  "It's not like we do it every single night....We throw a party here and there, but who doesn't?"  These students believe they have a right to behave like this. 

If I was a neighbour, I might go vigilante and arm myself with a digital camera and a facebook site: "Students who don't really want a good job."  Some will wear it as a badge of honour and spend their lives explaining the late fees policy on movie rentals  Other will recognize the importance of reputation, not just as a potential employee, but as a representative of their school, their city, and their family.

If I was part of the university admin, I'd might even go one step further than the fines and arrests to try to amend the policy of both universities to say that any students involved in parties that get a noise complaint charge will be temporarily suspended from studies and have to spend that time in a grade 10 civics class to learn the concept of rights and responsibilities.

I had a few students in my own class complain that some professors won't let students on facebook during class.  Their argument was similar to the students involved in the parties:  If they're paying to be there, they should be allowed to do whatever they want.  They added that they learn better if they're multi-tasking, despite opposing claims by current research on the topic. Really they just haven't developed the ability to sustain their attention, to cope with moments of boredom, or at least to listen politely if not attentively.  And we're back to that marshmallow test.

I think we have a responsibility as educators to ensure that, by their late teens, everyone grasps that they can't do anything that markedly affects the happiness of others.  They can't yell in the streets whenever the mood strikes because it bothers other people who have the right to peace and quiet.  And they can't surf the net during class because it might be distracting for others - not to mention rude to the professor.  And they can't pee on my boulevard because I don't want to see that.

And they can't clear-cut rainforests in Brazil to grow soy beans for McDonalds beef because it destroys habitat and the world's best carbon-absorbers, or drain the water from the aquifers in India to make Coke because it leaves entire villages without clean drinking water, or fail to check equipment sufficiently to prevent a devastating oil leak because... what a mess. 

It's all the same behaviour that says, "My desires matter more than your rights."  And it's wrong.

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