As colleges across the United States have struggled to maintain coronavirus outbreaks on their campuses, Rice University has been able to keep its COVID-19 infection rates the lowest among colleges in Texas.
The university credits its newly formed, student-based COVID Community Court for keeping cases down.
Peter Holley has been writing about the student court for Texas Monthly, and says while it has broad support on campus, some are concerned that it goes too far with student surveillance. Some have concerns that through anonymous complaints, it gives students the green light to tattletale on their peers.
“It’s creating some suspicion that the people are being watched or that, you know, maybe the roommate has turned them in. And it’s just it’s an unusual situation,” Holley said.
Initial complaints lead to a warning or recommendation about how to better follow health guidelines. But the community court isn’t toothless. Students can incur a $75 penalty, which hasn’t happened yet. Repeated violations can also end up on their permanent academic record.
“It’s mostly kind of reeducation. There is a lot of paper writing. There’s, you know, you can be forced to meet with an adviser and talk about health guidelines. The idea is to kind of put health guidelines at the forefront of students minds,” he said.
While the COVID Community Court is new, it comes out of a long tradition of student governance at Rice. Holley says it was a “bold” decision by
the administration to leave policing community health up to the students, especially given the seriousness of the pandemic. There was an adjustment period earlier in the semester, when the court had to step in to deal with some parties and gatherings. But overall, he says it’s worked well to control the spread of COVID-19.
“This seems to be one of the best tools for keeping the constant engagement and conversation about COVID-19 at the forefront of everyone’s minds,” Holley said. “People have gotten kind of used to guidelines.”