A typical feature of a night out at Swarthmore is the fearful invocation of “Pub Safe,” the common name for the college’s Public Safety department. One would think this would be to ask for emergency help with an intoxicated friend or safety when walking back alone at night. Often, however, Pub Safe has become synonymous with the end of fun and the beginning of harsh consequences, leading students to wonder how an institution built around safety and security now stands for the opposite.
With COVID signaling a significant change to campus culture and leading to strict security measures on campus, Swarthmore’s culture around fun has been invariably altered. While recently, many attempts have been made to revive parties and Pub Nite on campus, one of the biggest obstacles that remains is Pub Safe and its approach to student events and incidents.
Every party at Swarthmore starts with the expectation that sooner or later, Pub Safe will be at the door, ready to shut the event down for either a noise complaint or underage drinking. What is interesting to note about the latter reason is that often, it is not even the possession of alcohol that is cited as a cause for concern. It is merely observing students at the event that appear intoxicated and “might” cause trouble.
For students, starting any Thursday, Friday, or Saturday night with the possibility of it ending with a Pub Safe shutdown only encourages more revelry in the hours before. The fear of being caught with any trace of alcohol outside one’s room leads to numerous closed-door parties and heavier pre-game drinking. Having no alcohol at the event itself and the fear of possession encourages students to get as intoxicated as they can in the hour or two before, with multiple drinks being downed in a short span of time. This binge drinking can lead to dangerous levels of intoxication and puts students at risk of harm far more than moderated drinking throughout the night would.
This persistent fear of disciplinary action for standard nights out shifts students’ perceptions of Pub Safe from an available resource one can seek out to a punitive body one must avoid. Surely this was not the intended purpose of Pub Safe, nor is it the primary part of their jobs. Nonetheless, numerous student reports in recent weeks of Pub Safe officers going out of their ways to discipline students demonstrate the gravity of the situation. Take Halloweekend, for instance, in which Pub Safe officers actively patrolled residence halls looking for student handbook violations. Shouldn’t students have a reasonable expectation of privacy and safety in which they may exist without the fear of a disciplinary Pub Safe knock on their doors?
Students have also reported being stopped for “appearing” intoxicated — Pub Safe officers have been quick to question and report them for violations before asking if they require any assistance. Concerns have been raised about reaching out to Residential Assistants (RAs) for support with incidents, as they are obligated to report any problems, leading once again to fears of getting into trouble. How is it that an organization created to foster safety on campus has led to a growing unwillingness to ask for help and become the face of resentment and complaint within the student body?
It’s important to note that individual Pub Safe officers, or even the institution of Public Safety, ought not to be blamed in this situation; it will not benefit the campus culture to blame officers merely following instruction. Rather, Pub Safe officers are employees within the Swarthmore system, and we view this as an administrative issue in which fun is being seriously mismanaged. When Pub Safe is encouraged to actively seek out and write reports on students who are in no danger and are not putting anyone else in danger, our system needs to be reconsidered. Pub Safe officers have undergone serious training regarding responding to students who have consumed dangerous amounts of alcohol or who pose threats to campus, and anecdotally, officers handle these situations well. The student body’s negative perception of Pub Safe and aversion to reaching out only prevents them from doing the job they are very capably trained for. Situations that could be easily mitigated risk becoming serious while innocent students congregating outside Olde Club are cited for “stumbling.”
While underage drinking is a state offense, it is important to remember that drinking occurs on college campuses regardless of its legality, and the administration’s approach to this phenomenon shapes whether it will become a minor or major problem. For many students aged eighteen to 21, away from home for the first time, it is not a question of whether they will drink or not — it is a question of where, when, and how.
Even for students 21 and up, the opportunities to safely consume alcohol on campus are few and far between. No hard liquor is allowed at alcohol-registered events (AREs), with the events themselves being heavily subjected to red tape. Many students and clubs have made attempts to procure the ARE license for their parties through the Office of Student Engagement (OSE), but are met with strong resistance and a low willingness to authorize these events. Students are often told they cannot host AREs as midterms or finals are approaching, or that they would need to make parties “invite-only” to have alcohol — something that is strongly against Swarthmore’s open-party ethos. With the only safe way to consume alcohol at parties so far out of reach and subject to constant bureaucratic interference and frivolous reasoning, how is the student body meant to foster a healthy spirit of fun?
If students are given a reliable frontier for support without constant fear of repercussions, it would encourage a healthier approach to alcohol consumption and lead to fewer severe incidents taking place. Stringent, restrictive policies around alcohol and partying, on the other hand, are only creating a more unsafe, dissatisfied student body that is willing to resort to extremes to experience the fun they feel they deserve.
We, The Phoenix Editorial Board, propose that Swarthmore’s administrative members urge Public Safety and OSE to be supportive and non-punitive members of the community regarding campus party culture.