While returning students spent the summer grappling with the tragic incidents in which a University of Central Florida student, 21-year-old Dylan Besser, and first-year, 18-year-old Julian Toomsen-Hall, both passed away on campus, a group of individuals, known as the Drug and Alcohol Task Force, met during the summer to produce a list of recommendations that would arrive, along with the students, fall semester.
“Those deaths were traumatic for students,” New College President Donal O’Shea said. “I’m not sure we finished grieving […] that was just the worst weekend of my life.”
“You gotta ask yourself: ‘Is something we’re doing contributing to this’?” O’Shea continued. “The best way to do that seemed to be to put together a group to look at our current policies, practices, and make some recommendations. And at least they would form a starting point for a larger self-examination and figure out what we should do.”
The Drug and Alcohol Task Force consisted of chair, Professor of Biochemistry Katherine Walstrom; faculty representatives, Political Science and Environmental Studies Professor Frank Alcock and Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Emily Saarinen; student representatives, second-year Lorraine Cruz and third-year, and New College Student Alliance (NCSA) co-president, Paige Pellaton; the Counseling and Wellness Center’s Psychological Fellow, and visiting counseling specialist, Duane Khan; attorney, and parent of an alumni, Peter Brigham; and alumni Aubrey Phillips. General Counsel Mark St. Louis, and NCSA Business Manager Dawn Shongood also assisted the task force.
The task force held no administrative power and officially disbanded on Aug. 15. It acted as an advisory board to the school, researching and brainstorming changes to drug policies and safety procedures on campus. At the conclusion of the four meetings that were held over the summer, the task force presented Donal O’Shea with a report and list of recommendations. This official report was then sent to every member of the student body, faculty, staff and board of directors.
The official report, which included an overview and a list of objectives, broke down recommendations into four categories: Policies and Procedures, Therapeutic Intervention for Students, General Wellness, and Surveying Students.
The task force examined the drug policies of local, state and out-of-state institutions such as Florida Gulf University, Eckerd College, Rollin Collins and Dartmouth College.
One school in particular, Reed College, was a major source of inspiration.
“Reed College has a specific policy where they take a tone that is very much less punitive and more about community wellbeing and wellness,” Pellaton said. “That has a lot to do with classifications of substances, that has to do with a greater definition between major and minor violence under our Substance and Alcohol policies.”
Previously, in March of 2010, two Reed College students died of heroin overdoses within two weeks of each other.
“[Reed College] is a lot like us in certain different respects,” Political Science and Environmental Studies Professor Frank Alcock said. “They had a very similar experience where they had two drug-related deaths and ended up in a place where a lot of other institutions call them up and look to them and their drug and alcohol policies.”
Additionally, the task force examined data surrounding the New College population. This included records of disciplinary actions of students both prior to being enrolled and while enrolled. The responses in exit surveys given to students who graduated or chose to drop out were also examined.
The task force took a holistic approach to understanding the student body.
“It dawned on me that, if we’re talking about campus culture, then who do I think are the keepers of the campus culture? I think it’s second- and third-years,” Alcock said. “Measuring people’s perceptions before they get here is informative but it doesn’t tell you anything about what it’s like on campus, and when you’re a senior you’ve got your mind on some other things, your head is down and in your thesis and, when you finish, you’re thinking about leaving. It’s the second- and third-years who really run this place.”
Alcock said a survey would possibly be conducted during the month of January when students are doing their Independent Study Project (ISP).
Certain recommendations, already implemented by administration, include setting a 2 a.m. curfew for Walls.
“What Chief [of Police, Michael A.] Kessie had noticed was that, because of the recent occurrence of Yik Yak hitting our campus, people were starting to post more and more about events that were going on at New College,” Pellaton said. “Particularly on weekends that are alcohol and substance related and that students, or people from the community in Sarasota, were coming into the area and onto campus.”
This change in policy has received mixed reviews, with some saying it inhibits campus community.
“Changing traditions that are central to the New College experience is a mistake,” second-year student Carl Romer, formerly known as Carl Polak, said. “Especially when the traditions of being outside with friends participating in communal activities, with more frequency, may have been just the thing that [would have] prevented last year’s tragedies.”
Others feel that changes to the drug policy were unnecessary.
“I saw the task force as the administration’s response to the attention in the media that the events of last year had,” second-year student, and member of the Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), Hannah Procell, said. “I also think it’s logical that the school would want to just reexamine the drug policies to see if that had any relation to the overdoses on campus, but, as I know, the drug policies on campus did not have any relation to those overdoses on campus.”
An immediate change made by administration following the campus tragedies was the decision to make last semester’s Graduation Palm Court Party, or Graduation PCP, substance-free.
“Lots of people felt bad for the seniors because they are legal [to drink] but I don’t think we had a choice in that one,” O’Shea said. “Suppose there was another student death, the liability would have been huge, they would have shut us down.”
At the beginning of this year, administration decided that another measure would be to change the name of the event since it connotes the pharmaceutical drug Phencyclidine, also known as PCP. The drug is a Schedule II substance known for its hallucinogenic effect on users.
“I think that [Graduation PCP] turned out to be a very good night for a lot of people,” second-year student Rebecca Phillips said. “I don’t think it was handled as well as it could have been, but it’s understandable that we need to change the name.”
However, additional changes that were not listed in the recommendations made by the Drug and Alcohol Task Force are nonetheless being implemented by administration. Among these changes is the increased presence of the New College Police Department (NCPD) on campus. Additionally, Residence Hall Directors (RHDs) now live in the Pei Residence Buildings, and Campus Life Coordinators (CLCs) accompany Resident Advisors (RAs) on their nightly rounds across campus.
First-year students have also reported discrepancies between the information given to them by administration and by their older college peers.
“There is sort of a disconnect between what [upperclassmen] tell me and then what administration tells me,” first-year student Adreina Carrasquero said. “I don’t know who to look to for answers.”
Other members of the student body echo this concern.
“I think that students don’t trust the administration to handle anything in our best interests anymore,” second-year student and supervisor of elections, Sabrina Finn, said. “And I think that the administration doesn’t trust students to conduct themselves in an appropriate manner. I think that there is a lot of discord between both groups, in the ways that we think that it should be handled.”
This has not stopped others from having a positive outlook on the future.
“I think New College has always been about people choosing their own paths,” O’Shea said. “And I’m hoping we have a wide range of respecting each other’s behaviors. […] If somebody comes here with a drug dependence, that’s one thing. But I would hope that nobody ever acquires one here.”
Despite campus climate and increased tension, many remain hopeful that the community will heal.