ML “Mouse Patrol” Sparks Privacy Concerns

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

On the morning of February 18th, a few students in Mary Lyons were woken up by two deans on a “mouse patrol,” taking note of food storage conditions in ML.

A student who wished to remain anonymous told the Gazette that his door was locked and he was sleeping when Associate Dean for Student Life Myrt Westphal and Assistant Dean for Residential Life Rachel Head entered his room around 10 AM. “They might or might not have knocked, I’m not sure, I just remember they were the first faces I saw. They said something about the mouse problem but, being half-asleep, I didn’t catch any of it,” the student said. Once awake, he left his room and went to find them.

“They said they were in ML doing a walk-through for the mouse problem and came with me into my room again, looking for open food. I told them we had gotten rid of all the open food a week ago but the mouse problem was still out of control, since we kept catching mice in traps and finding droppings on our clothes in the dressers,” they said. “I was frustrated when I realized that the deans were in ML primarily to find evidence against the students—evidence that the students were causing the mouse problem—and not, as we had all hoped, to actually assist in fixing the problem.”

Another student thought she had dreamed the mouse patrol, but “upon talking to an ML RA, l realized I had not … two women had in fact entered my room while I was in bed and went through my things, under the impression that I was asleep.” She experienced the visit as a “violation of trust and privacy … no matter the justification behind it.”

Head explained that she has heard from a number of concerned students since the patrol. “Their main concern was that they didn’t think the communication lines were open, they would have appreciated better communication in terms of why we’re doing this and how we’re doing it,” she said.

Head explained that “Myrt and I let the RAs know the day before that we were planning on doing a walkthrough … [but] they didn’t understand that ‘walkthrough’ for us meant room walkthrough. They thought it meant just lounges and common spaces. If they had known [what we meant] they would have let their residents know … what was clear in our minds wasn’t clear in theirs.”

The ML RAs agreed with this explanation of the problem, but declined to comment further.

Head explained that the “mouse patrol” was a spot check of about fifteen rooms on the first and second floors. “The majority of the rooms were vacant … there were 3 or 4 rooms where students were there and one or two rooms with sleeping students,” she said.

She continued, “we kind of figured that we might be going into rooms where there were things students didn’t want us to see, say alcohol in a first-year’s room … all we did was walk in the room, turn around, and make a note about food storage,” taking pictures if there were evident food storage problems.

Head promised that those pictures were not connected to names or room numbers. “We forwarded the pictures to the ML RAs, to ask, is this consistent with what residents are telling you? … hopefully the RAs will do individual walkthroughs with their residents to talk about food storage. Workbox also got one e-mail with [the pictures] … Workbox can show the pictures to the exterminators, [and] in the future they might be instructive.”

She continued, “we don’t want any students to feel like they’re being shamed,” and said of student complaints that there had been poor communication, “we’ll definitely take that under advisement … but if we saw alcohol in your room, if we saw pets, we’re not going to call you in to talk about that … this is unconnected.”

The exterminator has been coming every Tuesday and Friday, and Head said that her office was also trying to step up communication on that front. “We had a lot of students telling us that he hadn’t come to their room … in the past we only told them [that he had visited] if he found a significant problem there, but now we will let them know that he’s visited.”

Head advises students to be “pro-active” about preventing mouse problems. “Mice won’t go into traps if there is real food, if they have a real food source the traps are less attractive. We’ve put a bunch of tins over in ML and I think they have been used so far,” she said.

The Housing Office is also working with facilities to get more trash cans and “door thresholds which make the door flush to the ground.” They have also “asked EVS employees to throw any food they find in common spaces away.” RAs have also purchased mousetraps and steel wool for their floors.

“If you get a door threshold, patch up every single hole with steel wool, and don’t keep food in your room, you have a pretty good chance you’re not going to have mice,” she said.


  1. I am rather disturbed that the administration would do this, even if they did send the RAs an unclear warning that they were planning on entering student's rooms a day before.

    I remember during RA training we talked pretty extensively about when it was appropriate for an RA to enter a room without the explicit consent of the student, whether or not the student was present at the time. We were instructed that this was only appropriate when we had reason to believe that something serious, dangerous, or possibly life-threatening was occurring at that time in the room. And even in those situations we were told to knock first and give students an option of letting us in before we used our master key to open a room.

    I would hope, and assume, that a similar standard would apply to deans. At least RAs are fellow students who are familiar to residents on the hall, whereas deans are not. Although I recognize that open food and mice can be a serious problem in dorms (I remember when I was an ML RA we had a serious cockroach problem) I hope that in the future the deans will get the explicit consent of students before entering their room in non-serious or life threatening situations. And the absence of a student, or a lack of a response from a sleeping dtudent, does not imply consent.

  2. Such incredibly bad judgment!–but it seems par for the course with Rachel Head. Anyone remember her email to Willets residents where she claimed that missing desk carols were irreplaceable (I guess there is only one company in the world that makes these things!), and that we should appreciate the fact living in a dorm where we have "unique" rooms that are missing various pieces of furniture? Thanks for addressing our concerns here at the worst, most falling apart dorm on campus, Rachel, you really care a lot about our needs and I can tell from the smiley faces in your email!

  3. I'm saddened that some of you don't know the value of Rachel yet. She has gone to bat for us more times than she probably wants to count and is always looking out for our best interest. So what that she came to walk through a dorm that was having a vermin problem to learn if there was something bigger than what she was constantly getting calls and e-mails about?! Now you're mad at her for actaully coming and checking it out for herself? We should be grateful that she actually came to check out the problem herself, but instead you re-pay her with a bunch of whiny complaints, you sound like a bunch of children who's mommy caught them doing something they weren't supposed to be doing… talk about bad judgment. And if her smiley faces actaully bother you, you probably have bigger issues than you're admitting to. So, to those who were upset by the Dean's walking through our dorm, you're in for a rude awakening out in the real world. Good luck out there.

  4. "I'm saddened that some of you don't know the value of Rachel yet. She has gone to bat for us more times than she probably wants to count and is always looking out for our best interest." … ??? Because vague hand-waving RE: positive acts will really, really convince the skeptical or neutral among us of exceptional fulfillment of her duties? Not living in Willets, I'm curious about DF's comments — my one interaction with Ms. Head entailed asking for a piece of standard furniture that was not in my room, inexplicably enough, not really receiving much feedback in return, and sort-of forgetting about it due to massive seminar-induced stress. I suppose I should harass her one of these days. Were people missing desks in Willets, as DF would suggest?

    "a rude awakening out in the real world" … when people will be freely allowed to enter our living spaces without fear of legal repercussion? (I know it's legal for the College to do as such, yadda yadda, but this is such a stereotyped comment and it doesn't really make much sense in this context.)

    It's also my intuition that it's in the Dean's Office's interest to have not relayed this as best they could to the residents of ML. After all, if they had warned them a day ahead that Deans would be randomly poking their heads in and doing photospreads of their rooms, I'm pretty sure many would have cleaned up, eliminating much of the informative value of their visit. (And, as it was sort-of-kind-of filtered through the RAs, as the article would suggest, well… plausible deniability, no?)

  5. Well, that was effective. Comment #5 was obviously my mistake. Anyway…

    While I think that the criticism of Ms. Head is undeserved and rude, I do think the administration should have thought this one through a little more. It seems that the matter was taken all too lightly and that the administration failed to realize that a dorm room is a living area, it is a 'home away from home'. As such, the students in question should have had the option of "opting out" of the "mouse patrol." Of course, opting out is a little difficult if you're asleep.

    I hope the students who were affected have recieved appropriate apologies, and I hope the administration will be more careful about their efforts if student privacy is at risk.

  6. I strongly agree with S that the Dean's Office needs to issue explicit apologies to the affected students. A true apology (unlike the pseudo-apologies Dean Westphal and Dean Head have been making for the past week) is not a sign of weakness, but a sign of integrity.

    It's good to hear promises of increased communication in the future, but part of being a responsible administrator is being able to admit when you make a grave error in judgment.

  7. This "coming and checking it out for herself doesn't sound like it was to actually address the problem but to blame students. "After all, if they had warned them a day ahead that Deans would be randomly poking their heads in and doing photospreads of their rooms, I'm pretty sure many would have cleaned up, eliminating much of the informative value of their visit." Now Rachel Head isn't just looking to pass the buck, she's willing to use rather draconian methods to pursue them. Especially considering the break ins we had last semester, I think that this was in terribly bad taste. This reeks of at least incompetency if not something worse.

  8. I think one of the biggest problems concerning this issue is that Rachel Head simply brushed off student concerns about privacy. Yes, it is probably legal to enter a student's room without permission (though the justification is still questionable). However, Ms. Head completely ignored any privacy concerns – these students feel violated and unsafe from the administration. That is a valid and serious concern, and one that should certainly be "taken under advisement."

  9. …"when people will be freely allowed to enter our living spaces without fear of legal repercussion? (I know it's legal for the College to do as such…"
    Um, hello? We don't own these dorms or rooms – the college does.
    So as the 'landlord' it's at their discretion and it's their prerogative to do what they deem necessary to keep the building in working order.
    Obviously, the mice are finding something in the building worth staying for so the Deans have every right to check out the living conditions and get back to the exterminators to say if they see or do not see why there would be an ongoing issue in the building… why is this so hard for people to understand?

    If you rented an apartment and the landlord got complaint after complaint after complaint of mice infesting the building, you think it would be best for him to just continually call an exterminator week after week after week and not inspect the issue himself?

  10. I was in my room and awake when they came, was asked if they could look around, said sure, and have no problem with the fact that they came in. However, if I had been asleep, I would definitely have minded. In the case of my room in specific, I was a bit disappointed that they only looked at the location of our food and not at the areas that we suggested might have holes. This made it feel a bit like they were looking for reasons to blame us rather than a way to improve the situation.

  11. @Grow Up:

    My impression is that even a land lord would be careful not to walk in while his tenants were asleep, legal issues aside. Not to mention that some landlords might not even care, etc. In any case, people have already made it clear that they realize that what the administration did is in their legal right, but our concerns were never of a legal nature to begin with.

  12. Myrt and Rachel were not considering issues with the dorm structural failings, but specifically student-created conditions that are attracting mice.

    I discovered on my own that when I put food in my fridge instead of on my shelf, the mice stopped coming (I managed to figure this out long before the unwelcome inspections), so the administration's thinking is not too wrong there. It's also much easier to put food away than to exterminate and seal, and is action that students can take to take responsibility for their own living spaces.

    The administration is also perfectly within their legal right to perform random inspections on dorm rooms. I think what most people are saying, however, that the entire method the deans used was aggressive and invasive — sort of like the mice that folks are complaining about. Of course, even though some folks still would not clean up even if there were an announcement, others would clean up if they expected the deans to inspect — but don't the deans actually WANT people to clean up? So an announced visit might have caused more good than an unannounced one.

    Ultimately, the administration made a wrong move here. They have compromised student trust in them to respect privacy in order to catch students with their pants down (so to speak…) with regards to having clean rooms. The results weren't worth it. Asking the RAs to do a friendly but spontaneous room check with student permission would have gotten the same information the administration wanted without making already upset students even more angry.

  13. Well, then in response to the "Mouse patrol, can we come in?" call you answer "Uh, no" and get yourself decent ASAP.

    I get the privacy thing is an issue, but if they had announced the visit before coming in, they wouldn't have had a snapshot of how people are living day to day. And that's significant, given that everyone under the sun is complaining about omg the mice why are they here?! One student had his parents call to complain to Rachel et al– and that very same student had a chocolate bar melted all over his radiator and dripping down to the floor. So uh, yeah.

    And in fact, of ALL the rooms they checked, only one or two were actually mice-proof. What's the point of having students quickly clean up in anticipation of being mouse patrol'd, only to revert back to their usual habits once it's over?

    Maybe they could have come later in the afternoon when students were less likely to be in their rooms (by the way, only three students were in sleeping), but other than that, I really do think they were well within their rights.

  14. Urooj, students (mostly) don't seem to be questioning whether they were within their rights (and I'm not sure it's their rights – they are only allowed to do that because they represent the school). Rather, students seem upset over the lack of respect shown in the initial search and in the Deans' response to students after the fact. "Only three people were sleeping" – so they just went ahead and entered? Or did they knock? Because the issue isn't really how many were asleep (though clearly they could have picked a better time) – the issue is how they treated the sleeping students.

    And two final thoughts on the pictures – first, I agree that by only taking pictures of evidence that students were leaving food out they seem just to be covering their own asses, rather than fixing the problem. Second, what about the legality of taking pictures wihout pemission? It seems to me that entering and taking pictures without permission could be very violating to students.

    Really, I think we all understand that the Deans can do what they did. However, you don't just tell someone to get over a violation of trust. The Deans need to show that they listen if students bring complaints forward if they have any hope of ever regaining the trust that they've lost.

  15. The summary of this situation is simple:

    A) The administrators show no respect for the students.

    B) If they found significant levels of food available for mice, they were justified in this lack of respect. Otherwise, they weren't.

    So the question is: what did they find? Were, or were not, the students slobs?

  16. Regardless of whether or not the administration acted within their "rights", this mouse patrol was truly the apotheosis of privacy invasion at Swarthmore.

    I know we all more-or-less willingly signed up for communal living, bathing, eating, studying, partying, etc. when we came to college. However, the fact that our dorm rooms are literally the only place we (kind of) have to ourselves on this campus, the only place where we don't have to plan on running into every member of the Swarthmore College populace on a daily basis, seems to me sufficient reason for the Deans to keep their distance from that space.

    I sympathize with the Deans' desire to send the message that the problem of the mice does not fall only in their court, but it is also the responsibility of students. It's disappointing that residents are not playing their part in solving the issue, as the Deans have made a number of efforts to help out, from buying plastic containers to hiring exterminators.

    But in the end, the mouse patrol was absolutely not the way to get that message across. It was disrespectful, inappropriate, and unnecessarily invasive. Some of us students definitely need to clean up our acts, but, the administration needed to find a more constructive way to catalyze that process.

    We do not live in a prison, we are not the pests, and we deserve to have our modest living space left in peace.

    The mice are enough uninvited company, thanks.

  17. What if you were sleeping Naked?!?!?!
    You don't say 'don't come in' and they still do?

    There must be SOMETHING wrong with this picture. And I suspect it has to do with dangleberries on display.

  18. Who walks in on a sleeping student?! And pokes around and takes pictures?! Seriously? A bedroom is a PRIVATE place, and it is a complete violation of privacy and trust for the deans to walk in without the explicit permission of the student living there.

    It doesn't matter that they'll supposedly disregard "alcohol, pets, etc" because maybe someone just didn't want a visitor (especially a dean) to see something that was in their room. Drugs, porn, a crucifix, a Hello Kitty alarm clock, messy shelves, it doesn't matter what it is, if a student doesn't want a stranger to see it (perhaps for a legitimate fear of being judged), they should have a warning so that they can remove the it from view. I'm so disgusted that this would happen.

    Even if I opened the door to a friend's room and they were asleep, I would never walk in. Being in someone else's room without them knowing is simply not okay. And the purpose was to take pictures (without consent) of students' rooms, so that the administration could send another email blaming the students for leaving food out? That is not a legitimate reason. Even with a warning a student should have the right to refuse an unwanted visitor.

    The situation is appalling to me. It doesn't matter whether or not the administration is within its rights. This is a huge breach of trust between the deans and the students. One would think that the deans would have more consideration of that relationship and offer a sincere apology to the student body and to the students whose rooms were searched.

  19. The mice have to go, but the administration should find a way other than entering rooms unannounced where students are sleeping to assess the environment. At the very least, in this day and age (and campus history of armed intruders entering rooms), if I woke up to find ANYONE in my room unannounced, it would scare the bijeezus out of me!! What exactly were they thinking? Very insensitive.

  20. All I'm saying is that it was a good thing they didn't walk into my room. My first response is to scream, then punch, and ask questions later. As a student whose home is in an urban area, I'd like to say that not only is the situation disrespectful, but it's dangerous for all involved, as well as law suit just waiting to happen. Especially with the incident involving the man with the knife earlier, I was thinking about buying a baseball bat or something, just in case. Really people. A little common sense.

  21. Swarthmore is not a dangerous urban area – that's common sense. Rachel Head is not a man with a knife – that's common sense.

    Hypothetically defending yourself against hypothetical violent intruders is all well and good, but it's not really applicable in this case. Whether what happened constitutes an invasion of privacy or not is irrelevant to the fact that these individuals associated with the administration are not intruders who could be reasonably construed as violent or larcenous, even on a sleepy Wednesday morning.

    If they had entered your room at 10 AM and you got out of bed and proceeded to immediately threaten or bludgeon them with a baseball bat without asking why two individuals were in your room taking photos of things, who would have been lacking in common sense there?

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