Less than 48 hours after Monongalia County bars re-opened and following photos and commentary circulating social media of overcrowding and a lack of masks outside of Morgantown bars, Gov. Jim Justice announced all county bars are closed indefinitely as of 4 p.m. Wednesday.
“Boom, right off the get-go, we’ve got people standing on top of people, we’ve got no masks,” Justice said. “The bars are closed.”
In a letter to the campus and Morgantown community released before the announcement, WVU President E. Gordon Gee said he was more than disappointed by the images of students packed together outside of bars and that any individuals identified will be referred to Student Conduct.
“I assure you we are taking these incidents extremely seriously,” Gee said.
The WVU Office of Student Conduct handles a variety of violations including alcohol use, cheating and sexual assault. This semester, the office is dealing with new violations like students participating in social gatherings, not quarantining and not wearing masks.
“We look at [COVID-19 violations] with a little bit of a heightened lens because we’re in a pandemic,” said Executive Director for Student Conduct Carrie Showalter.
The Office of Student Conduct reported last week that 17 students were on probation, and that it was processing charges for 15 additional students that could face probation. Showalter said more reports of COVID-19 violations have continued to come in since then, and her office is working to process them.
Showalter said reports come in many forms, including police reports and submissions through a reporting form on the Student Conduct website. She said police reports are easy to work with because they usually include names and a written account of the incident while anonymous online reports are more difficult to follow up on.
An online poll conducted by the Daily Athenaeum received more than 100 responses. Close to 40% of those surveyed said they would never turn in someone they knew to Student Conduct, while 30% said they would turn in someone they knew. The final 30% said they would turn in a stranger who repeatedly violated COVID-19 guidelines.
“We want to encourage people to report, and if it’s anonymous, we will still look into it,” Showalter said. “The reports are everything from someone’s not wearing a mask [to] someone’s not quarantining. Obviously, the more serious ones are failure to isolate… but a lot of the reports we’re getting are related to social gatherings."
Jaron Bragg, president of the WVU chapter of the Pi Kappa Phi fraternity and student body vice president, said his fraternity was hosting a few guests in its chapter house on Aug. 17. He estimated the crowd was around 35 people, and noted that the majority of the people there lived at the fraternity house.
Bragg said University Police arrived and issued a warning. He said he shut off the music and sent guests home, but was surprised to wake up the next day with an email from Student Conduct in his inbox.
“[The University Police report] said like 45 to 55 people, and that just wasn’t true,” Bragg said. “Then the student conduct meeting happened and they were very polite, very nice. I explained to them the situation; It was our first student conduct hearing as an organization, I guess that’s pretty rare for a fraternity.”
Bragg left that meeting with a warning for his chapter and said he feels Greek Life is targeted for enforcement by the University.
“I find it, the hypocrisy of having Up All Night on weekends with hundreds of people all around and then you want to crack down on a 35-person gathering in a 25-person house,” Bragg said. “That just doesn’t sit right with me.”
Showalter said Greek Life has been responsible for a “fair amount” of social gathering reports, but that a number of social gatherings have been reported in the Sunnyside area.
“The reports we get about Greek Life are disproportionate to the number of students that are in Greek Life,” she said. “I don’t think it’s because there’s an issue with Greek Life. I just think anytime you’ve got students that are in large groups it can lead to misconduct.”
Director of Greek Life Matthew Richardson works closely with the Office of Student Conduct on violations in the Greek community. He said students will no longer be protected by their organization for individual violations like in previous years.
“You’re going to be held accountable as a student for your actions and you’re not going to be able to hide behind the organization’s charter as the ultimate punishment,” Richardson said. “That’s not where we’re at. We’re trying to build a sense of community here and get students to be in line with the idea that they can help stop the spread.”
He said that while most students are following the guidelines, the problem is with the students that don’t. Richardson said the University has to rise to meet the challenge presented by the latter group.
Showalter emphasized that every student conduct violation is different and there isn’t a one-size fits all approach. She said each report is handled on the basis of the facts and students are given the opportunity to share additional information.
“We really make every effort to be fair,” she said.
Showalter said students who refuse to isolate themselves or participate in contact-tracing after testing positive could be considered for suspension or expulsion. Students who have a repeated history of violating COVID-19 guidelines could face the same consequences. Before a student is suspended or expelled, they would go through a hearing with an independent adjudicator.
While students have not outright refused to comply with a quarantine, Showalter said students have been out at the Mountainlair or getting something to eat when they’re supposed to be in a quarantine because of exposure to COVID-19.
“We always look at it from ‘Is this a safety risk to the University?’” Showalter said. “If someone’s behaving in a way that puts others at risk... we would want to do what we could to stop that risk.”