When Castleton University announced students would be returning to campus for the fall semester, it did not come without concern from the community. In the midst of a pandemic, residents wondered why one of the safest states would bring college students back from all over the country.
In his first semester serving as interim president, Jonathon Spiro found himself fielding questions and concerns from anxious community members. He had to make one thing clear.
“I pledged to them I would protect their health,” he said. “We have to understand there are people in Rutland County who are afraid for their lives. There’s no way that any of us want to put them in danger or increase their anxiety.”
Then, just two weekends into a semester like no other, Spiro received a phone call at 2 a.m. informing him of a stabbing that took place involving Castleton students at an off-campus party. He, and the community, were left stunned.
“These things make the national news and it’s embarrassing for our university to be associated with this,” he said. “It has done damage to our relationship with the town and the residents, and we really, really need the town and the residents to be on our side.”
Since the incident, Spiro has spoken with the governor of Vermont, the chancellor of Vermont State Colleges, members of the Board of Trustees and town officials.
“Basically, they all are understandably saying, ‘What the hell is wrong with you people?’” he said.
Castleton Police Chief Peter Mantello wants to see improvement as well.
“The state wants to see the colleges and the universities be more accountable and responsible, and enforce their pledges,” he said. “Whatever that may be, whether it be suspension, or kicked off the sports team, or whatever.”
Some students on campus had similar thoughts on the incident. Abby Mayo, secretary of Castleton University’s senior class, was one. She said parties are typically a way of building community and meeting new friends, but this year is different.
“Right now, in the middle of a pandemic, it’s beyond selfish. It’s taking away opportunities from people who care about being here, and putting us all at risk,” she said.
Patrick Lucey, president of Castleton University’s student government said, the party completely went against the Spartan Pledge, calling it “reckless.”
“As a community it’s our duty to keep the local townspeople, as well as ourselves, safe. Once you come to campus you are considered a Vermont resident and should act like it,” he said.
The news of the stabbing, which also brought college partying during a global pandemic to the public’s attention, led to a quick response from the town of Castleton. Just days after, the Castleton Select Board passed a new town ordinance limiting large gatherings to 25 people.
Spiro said he fully supports the ordinance. Mantello agreed.
“I think the 25 group is good, it’s reasonable. I mean, after all, we are still in a pandemic. We got an executive order, and most of the university college towns are adopting some type of resolution, so that’s not unusual,” he said.
Castleton students were also met with an email from Spiro with the subject line, “Keeping Our Pledge,” pleading them to act more responsibly in this time of crisis.
“Simply put, we cannot tolerate behaviors that contradict our guidelines for masks, physical distancing and large gatherings … please understand that outside of our campus community, many expect that you will fail. We must set the right example for one another. We must prove wrong those who think we can’t do this. We must uphold our shared responsibility of keeping our community safe,” Spiro said in the email.
He also mentioned he does not have the intention of shutting down campus but may have to if “the bad actions of a few force me to act.”
This would be tough news for students like Mayo, who have important in-person classes for their degree programs.
“If we get shut down, we can’t do our clinical hours and we’ll have to take an incomplete in our class. It’s frustrating because it’s not within our control to ask others to care enough not to party,” she said.
However, there are still students who are not concerned about the dangers of partying during a pandemic. An 18-year-old first-year student, who asked to remain anonymous, countered Mayo’s fear of campus being shut down.
“I feel like a lot of us college students are excited to have freedom and not really thinking COVID, which is a bad idea, but we do it anyway for some reason. I feel like if we keep doing it we’ll eventually get sent home because of an outbreak on campus. I’m hoping it doesn’t but you never know what can happen,” the student said.
Another 18-year-old first-year student who attended the party where the stabbing took place confirmed there was no social distancing at the party and masks were not being worn. This student also asked to remain anonymous.
The student was not concerned about the lack of social distancing and masks, although the news of a positive case on campus is causing the student to be more hesitant.
“My logic is we’re all working out together in the gym, we’re all eating together, it can get transferred just as easily there,” the student said.
So, what if the partying does not stop?
Off-campus incidents are in the jurisdiction of the Castleton Police Department. However, if police give names of Castleton students involved in an off-campus legal matter, there can also be a judicial process for discipline by the university.
The new town ordinance allows police to approach parties simply based on large gatherings. If students are caught, they will face a series of fines dependent on the number of offenses.
According to Keith Molinari, director of Public Safety, there can also be a judicial process on Castleton’s end.
“The prevention aspect from here is as the communication comes in from the police to our campus, and if the host of a party is in fact a student, then we can head towards the discipline process here as a college,” he said.
Other colleges have already announced they will be strict in dealing with the disobedience of covid-19 guidelines. SUNY Plattsburgh recently suspended 43 students who were caught at a packed party.
Spiro likes to take an educative approach before handing down punishments, but he understands this semester may be different.
“We always believe in working with the students to educate them and to assimilate them into the Castleton Way. However, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. Members of the public, and the legislature, and the Board of Trustees are very anxious and worried. This year we have less time to educate and be patient,” he said.
Spiro is determined to stand by his pledge of safety to the community if incidents such as these continue to occur. As much as he believes in the importance of education, the coronavirus pandemic has caused all of us to change the way we would live normally.
Given the circumstances, it is clear students will be held to a higher standard of responsibility. Spiro understands it will take time, but he is confident Castleton will overcome this.
“I used to be a student, and I have two children who are students. I understand the desire to party and socialize. Traditionally, that’s been a great part of the college experience. But for this particular semester, we all just need to grow up very quickly and accept the fact that our actions don’t just affect us,” he said.
“At a time when 180,000 Americans have given their lives for this, it’s not too great a sacrifice to wear a mask, stay six-feet away and do the right thing in the short-term so we can all survive in the long-term.”