Opinion | Don’t Make College Kids the Coronavirus Police

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Hundreds of American colleges and universities have opted to begin the fall semester at least partly in person, allowing some or all of their students onto campus to live and study. These schools are going to great lengths to impress upon students that their behavior determines whether campuses can stay open or whether they will have to head back to their parents’ homes by October. In many cases, schools are requiring students to sign “social contracts” in which they promise not to party, have overnight dorm guests, walk across campus without masks or otherwise conduct themselves as college students normally do — and often attaching strict penalties if students violate the rules.

In addition to agreeing to conduct themselves according to these rules, students are also being asked to police one another for violating them. College campuses have long monitored their students’ behavior to enforce various expectations, from attending class to completing assigned readings to sticking around at football games. In the age of Covid-19, these forms of monitoring are intensifying — and students are being tasked with becoming surveillors themselves.

New York University, for example, implores students to “politely urge” the noncompliant to wear masks and social-distance — and if they don’t listen, to report the fellow students to higher-ups. Tulane University urges students to “hold your friends and peers accountable” for having parties. The University of Nebraska at Omaha asks students to commit to “discouraging large in-person group gatherings” to help fight the virus.

Other schools are recruiting students as “health ambassadors” to “utilize peer-to-peer influence” and training them in bystander intervention techniques. Many schools are setting up tip lines where students can anonymously report those who fail to wear masks or social-distance, or asking students to use hotlines that were originally created to report issues like harassment and other misconduct. And if students eventually test positive for the virus — say, after attending an illicit social gathering — contact tracing protocols may require them to report others who broke the rules.

In many ways, it makes sense that universities are relying on students to be the eyes and ears of public health management. Students are much more likely than a dean or provost to know about what’s really going on in the dorms and frat houses. And providing an anonymous way for students to whistle-blow about unsafe conditions can certainly be a good thing, since it is unreasonable to expect all students to come forward publicly.

But there’s a risk that these peer reporting systems may not be effective in controlling the spread of Covid-19 on campus because they put students in very tough positions. Of course, many students understand the high stakes of a coronavirus outbreak and have a desire to help keep their communities safe. Some students may feel a sense of civic duty to participate in policing their classmates’ behavior. But others may be loath to report on their friends, especially when doing so could result in harsh penalties. And students risk being socially ostracized if they are branded with the stigma of being a “narc” by their peers. Students may find themselves weighing the complex burdens of playing a role in preserving public health against the potential personal costs of reporting.

We’ve seen this play out time and time again on college campuses, when students’ refusal to snitch on one another has impeded investigations of hazing practices and sexual violence. And we’ve already seen similar dynamics unfold in the current pandemic — local officials have had to resort to subpoenas to get infected individuals to comply with contact tracing, and people have been targeted with threats and harassment for “snitching” to officials about noncompliant business practices. In many cases, university messaging encourages students to de-escalate and educate in their interactions with noncompliant peers — but tensions are high, and even adults don’t always handle these conflicts well.

Another risk is that peer reporting systems may have unintended consequences — especially when people use them for their own purposes. Consider the VOICE hotline run early in the Trump administration, ostensibly for the reporting of information about crimes committed by individuals with “a nexus to immigration.”

People who called VOICE were motivated by a wide variety of family, neighborhood and business disputes. One caller reported a family member who would not let her see her granddaughter. Another reported his wife, who he said was falsely accusing him of domestic violence in order to obtain legal residency. Still others targeted spouses who had committed adultery or abused their children. Another reported an employee of her ballroom dance studio, who was allegedly trying to lure away customers to her own competing studio.

People report on one another (truthfully or falsely) for a number of personal reasons, including competition, revenge, leverage and everyday aggravations. There’s every reason to assume that these motivations will bubble up in the college context, too. Students have their own loyalties, broken hearts, rocky roommate relationships and fraternity codes of silence.

Some commentators have already questioned whether the N.C.A.A.’s Covid-19 tip line — to be used to report on schools endangering the health of their student athletes — may be exploited for competitive advantage, if students snitch on their rival schools or backup players tattletale on starters. Schools should also not assume that these burdens will be equally borne by all students. Community policing often leads to rampant racial profiling — and recent events have snapped into sharp relief just how easily reporting can be weaponized against minority groups.

Fighting the coronavirus is, to be sure, an all-hands-on-deck problem, but pitting students against one another in a high-stress time carries real risks, and colleges should be exceedingly careful about casting their students in the role of undercover coronavirus cops. Deputizing students to police their peers threatens to disrupt the interpersonal dynamics of student life, while also creating conditions to displace blame onto students should outbreaks occur. Universities need to be mindful of how peer surveillance systems might be misused, how they might burden different groups of students and the damage they may do to community trust.

Karen Levy (@karen_ec_levy) is an assistant professor in the department of information science at Cornell University, where Lauren Kilgour (@l_kilgour) is a doctoral candidate.

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