A Call for Individual Accountability in Dorm Damage

By Jae Yun Ham '22, Contributing Writer | Oct. 3, 2018 | 148-5

It has only been a month since the start of the school year, but dorm damage is already a widespread problem. As a first-floor resident, I have not been immune to the threat of collective punishment. Recently, someone smashed both soap dispensers in our men’s restroom. Yet due to the threat of a floor-wide-fee, I hesitated to notify my Resident Counselor (RC) of the damage. What if I was punished for damage that I did not cause? Would reporting the damage only hurt me financially in the long run? Only the dark splatters of blood on the bathroom wall convinced me to report the damage I saw. After hearing my peer’s complaints, it was clear that this incident far from an isolated one.

Take the recent infamous “Appleton Fire-Extinguisher Fiasco,” for example. On a busy weekend, someone discharged a fire extinguisher on the third floor. Immediately, Residential Life notified all Appleton residents of their financial culpability. In a mandatory meeting, Amherst College Police Department officers and RCs encouraged the perpetrator to come forward. Yet to this day, the perpetrator of the damage has not confessed to their actions. As such, the residents of Appleton are now responsible for the damage caused by one offender.

This scenario is not the only one with such a terrible ending. Under a system of collective punishment, students have no incentive to take responsibility for their own actions. Why take accountability for your mistakes and pay the price when one can spread the blame around? Under the unjust system of collective punishment, accountability is a non-existent notion. Simply put, collective punishment fails to increase accountability and often only punishes innocent students.

Furthermore, collective punishment fails to account for the possibility that students who don’t reside in the damaged dorms may actually be causing damage. In the Appleton incident, it is probable that another first-year student living in a completely different dorm caused the damage in question. Moreover, with such a lax security policy on guests, there still lies the possibility that an upperclassman or even a non-Amherst student caused the damage. Regardless of the possibilities, students in Appleton were still forced to pay up. To a first generation, low-income student like myself, dorm damage charges are not small expenses. Amherst should not be punishing students for damage that they have not caused. It is clear that collective punishment is not a just and reasonable solution to fixing the problem of property damage.

As of now, the only way Residential Life removes damage charges from student accounts is through a strict appeal process. Students are only given a seven-day window to appeal to Residential Life. Furthermore, when appealing, declaring one’s innocence is not enough. A student must either a) substantiate being away from campus on the date of incident or b) know who is responsible and have the perpetrator agree to take responsibility in writing. This unreasonable standard makes it difficult for innocent students to object to charges. Were you studying in Frost while the damage was being caused? Were you working a late campus job while your dorm was being trashed? In both cases, Amherst would still hold students accountable for such damage.

Amherst can begin the improvement process by increasing student accountability on campus through simple security measures. To hold dormitories more accountable, the administration should begin by increasing security in dorms so that students are deterred from causing further damage. By increasing dorm security, Residential Life and the ACPD would be able to identify suspects and charge them for the damage caused, absolving innocent students in the process. Imagine if Appleton had installed cameras to record the students who had discharged the fire extinguisher: students in Appleton, and in other dorms, would have been free from both moral and financial responsibility. To increase trust, security, and responsibility on campus, Amherst must take the first step to affect change on this unjust policy.