Though hundreds of items have been confiscated from rooms, and parents and students have complained to the University about this month’s health and safety inspections, GW has no plans of creating an appeals process to reclaim confiscated items deemed dangerous.
The inspections, designed to remove potentially dangerous items from student housing, are about halfway complete, said Nancy Haaga, director of Institutional and Auxiliary Services. Rebecca Sawyer, assistant dean of students, said 436 items have already been confiscated and given to a charity, though Haaga placed the number at about 300. About 80 percent of the items taken from students are halogen lamps and candles, Haaga said, adding that items are given to Goodwill.
University officials defended the inspections and confiscations, reiterating that students were warned of the first round of inspections and that prohibited items would be confiscated. Haaga said it is students’ responsibility to ensure safety in the residence halls.
Haaga said the first round of inspections, along with a prohibited items list, were announced through various means including e-mails and posters, but that future inspections will not be announced.
“Ultimate responsibility for ensuring compliance with reasonable health and safety requirements rests with each resident,” Haaga wrote in an e-mail Friday. “Health and safety inspections are not intended to be a substitute for such responsibility. Residents are responsible for complying with all applicable University regulations and guidelines.”
The University has contracted a company called HRH Mitigation Incorporated to conduct health and safety inspections of most University residence halls. Haaga described HRH employees as “highly trained and experienced in the areas of loss prevention, loss control, security and safety.” Seven GW residence halls, including Ivory Tower and Townhouse Row, are managed and inspected by Ambling Management under supervision of the University’s Office of Risk Management, Haaga said. HRH did not return calls to comment.
While inspectors will confiscate items prohibited by the University, and will contact University Police Department officials upon finding alcohol in a room to determine if the student is of legal drinking age, Haaga said inspectors will not be actively searching rooms for prohibited items.
“The Health and Safety Inspectors are performing visual inspections within all residence halls rooms,” Haaga wrote in the e-mail. “Inspectors are not opening drawers or cabinets looking for prohibited items.”
The University has not determined if it will continue to use a private contractor to conduct room inspections beyond the 2005-2006 school year, but Haaga said there are “no plans” to begin training Community Living and Learning Center employees to conduct inspections of the rooms, as has been the practice in previous years.
GW law professor Mary Cheh said that while she sees nothing “obviously illegal” about the room inspections, “I’m not sure they have set in place a structure to do it perfectly legally at this point.”
“There ought to be some mechanism for you to recover property,” Cheh said. “You might have a contractual claim about the conversion of the property to their own use, even though they are giving it to a charity.”
Senior Ben Traverse (CCAS-U), a member of the Student Association Senate, said nowhere in University guidelines does it state that it may confiscate students’ private property.
“Nowhere in the Guide to Student Rights and Responsibilities, Residential Community Conduct Guidelines and Residential License Agreement are seizure or confiscation mentioned,” Traverse said. “The only thing they mention is inspection.”
“Inspection is inspection, not confiscation,” he added.
Cheh said it could be a problem if the University did not explicitly state the possibility of confiscation.
“It’s not within their power if it’s not part of your agreement,” Cheh said. “Unless you agree that as part of enforcement of the policy they get to keep the property, that is a gap they need to fill in.”
GW law professor Robert Park said the inspections involve a question of privacy and the power of a landlord.
“You have two different types of issues in play,” Park said. “You have very low residual interest in the University in terms of control of students’ private lives. The concern is student welfare, security in the dorms… You have a legitimate interest in trying to protect people.”
Julie Webb, director of housing for American University, said her school inspects students’ rooms at the end of each semester to ensure windows are closed and the heat is turned off, but AU does not confiscate students’ private property.
“When we go in, if we find anything that is prohibited, depending on what it is, we take it, but we don’t give it to charity,” Webb said.
She added that she used to work at the University of Maryland where mid-semester inspections were done and said if items were taken, students had an opportunity to reclaim them.