Safety Inspections Ignite Controversy

By Middlebury Campus

Author: Peter Simon Staff Writer

With October winding down, the College’s annual inspection of dormitories for compliance with fire safety rules is under way. This year, two changes to fire safety policy are causing some controversy: the decision to add Christmas lights to the list of banned items and the decision to discard confiscated items rather than store them in commons offices.

“The College looks at safety first,” said Residential Systems Coordinator Mariah McKechnie ’01. McKechnie noted that while the fire safety policy changes may not be popular, “they are done with the students’ best interests and safety in mind.”

Commons Residential Advisors (CRAs), along with Facilities Management workers, are in the process this week and next week of checking rooms for violations of the fire safety laws. Social houses are checked by McKechnie, Assistant Dean of Student Affairs Karen Guttentag and Assistant Director of Custodial Services Linda Ross.

The College’s Fire Safety Policy, detailed in the College Handbook and on orange fliers that were sent to all students last week, lists 11 regulations meant to reduce the chance of fire in a residential hall. Among the prohibited items are space heaters, toasters, candles and halogen lamps.

Christmas lights have been added to the list this year after administrators began to worry about their potential for igniting a fire. Christmas lights have not been considered particularly dangerous in the past as long as they were not left on unsupervised.

However, this past June administrators were urged reconsidered the policy towards Christmas lights after Public Safety Officer Ed Sullivan noted that the lights had caused “burn marks all over the walls, window and door frames” in one room. “If they were to come in contact with combustible materials …a fire could certainly occur,” wrote Sullivan in an e-mail to the deans of the commons. McKechnie said of the added regulation, “The College has to take every precaution to avoid fires in residential halls. We are always looking for new information on potential fire hazards.” She added that most fire regulations are protested at first, but do not remain an issue much longer.

More controversial has been a change in policy regarding the handling of confiscated materials from rooms. In the past, confiscated items — usually lamps or candles — have been stored in commons offices.

In a campus-wide e-mail sent on Oct. 16, McKechnie wrote that confiscated items would not be returned to students this year and would instead be discarded or recycled.

The change was prompted by the fact that students rarely retrieved their confiscated items from commons offices, which led to items “piling up” and taking up space.

Not wanting to go out of their way to give the illegal items back to students, administrators decided that confiscated items should be discarded.

Some students have reacted harshly to this policy change. Two opinion pieces and one letter to the editor ran in the Oct. 17 issue of The Middlebury Campus protesting the policy on the grounds that it violated students’ right to personal property.

Administrators do not see the confiscation and disposal of hazardous items as a violation of students’ rights, since the banned items are noted in the College Handbook.

Because items that end up confiscated are illegal to possess in the first place, students “do not have the right to get them back,” said McKechnie, who remarked that the policy is analogous to that of confiscated drug paraphernalia. “We give students ample warning about illegal items,” said McKechnie.

McKechnie, who was not involved with the implementation of the policy, has received criticism herself in her e-mailbox over the confiscation and disposal issue. “The issue is being blown out of proportion,” she said. “The College is only concerned about safety.” Students who have questions about confiscated items or other Fire Safety issues should speak with their CRAs, said McKechnie.

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Safety Inspections Ignite Controversy