Friday, April 24, 2009

New RA Policy Raises Questions of Privacy in On-Campus Housing

Over the past year, AU Housing and Dining Programs has, with difficulty, sought to implement a program that would encourage more interaction between resident assistants and their residents while not invading students' privacy.

In January, Intentional Interactions became the reincarnation of EagleEye, an unpopular program that was shut down after much student outcry. The EagleEye 2.0, so to speak, aims to increase contact between the two groups.

When information about the Housing and Dining's EagleEye program leaked last September, some students said they were alarmed by the seeming lack of privacy it generated, especially if RAs were able to talk to resident directors about certain individuals they were worried about.

Documents previously obtained by The Eagle showed that the program aimed to collect data about resident students’ experience at AU. In the opt-in program, RAs would conduct one-on-one meetings with residents and then log and track information about the students in an online database, the Eagle previously reported. The program focused on the aggregate, not individuals, Treter said.

"Resident Assistants will submit online EagleEye Reports to the Director of Residence Life on a rolling basis for students they observe to be at risk, based on a series of criteria established by the Residential Education Team,” EagleEye’s original definition read, The Eagle previously reported. “The Residential Education Team, in coordination with the appropriate university office, will then determine the appropriate follow-up to increase student retention and success."

After numerous student complaints, Housing and Dining Executive Director Chris Moody decided to not approve the program, and Director of Residence Life Rick Treter went back to the drawing board.

The new program, which Housing and Dining internally refers to as Intentional Interactions, is "the best part of EagleEye," according to Treter.

"A version of [EagleEye] has been redrafted to remove any types of concern about invasion of privacy [or] storage of student information, to be a guide for RAs in helping to have conversations with their students," Moody said.

Intentional Interactions is a tool for RAs to have increased relations and conversations with the residents living on their floor, according to Treter. RAs are given lists and contact information for places to point their residents to if they have any questions or problems with any facet of student life. All on-campus residents, especially freshmen, are encouraged to schedule, but can opt-out of, one-on-one conversations with their RA.

Freshman Louise Brask participated in EagleEye last fall.

"Last semester, when I was first interviewed by my RA, I was a little taken aback that they had been writing everything down," she said. "It seemed very forced and very unnatural."

Suggested questions for Intentional Interactions are the same as they were for EagleEye, Treter said. The main difference is that there will not be any information tracking.

"The focus of EagleEye became learning about students," Moody said. "But that wasn't what it was designed to do. It was designed to give the RA resources to give back to the student, and so I think all the conversations that happened in the fall about EagleEye were really productive because it helped to re-focus the goal on giving RAs resources to help residents."

EagleEye was not meant to be an invasion of privacy, Treter said.

"It was not my intention from the beginning for it to be anything that was intrusive into somebody's private area," he said. "That's not my goal and that's not something that I want."

The problem with EagleEye was the mandatory reporting of all residents, according to an RA in a North side residence hall who asked not to be identified.

"RAs are already encouraged to bring any problems they see on their floor to the RDs," the RA said. "But making a mandatory reporting database of all residents and their reactions to our questions was not a good idea."

The RA said he or she partially follows Intentional Interactions. The RA does not use the questions provided by Housing and Dining, but instead said he or she tries to have meaningful conversations with his or her residents.

"I consider what I do to be the intent of Intentional Interactions," the RA said. "I do not press my residents for more information; I let them talk to me about how they are doing, and I try to assist them with any issues or problems they are having."

The role of the RA in student life comes at the heels of the second anniversary of the Virginia Tech shooting – where Seung-Hui Cho killed 32 students and faculty members before taking his own life. At the time of the shooting, Cho was living in on-campus housing; several of his roommates and neighbors previously mentioned him exhibiting rogue behavior, yet his RA knew nothing about the issue. As reports after the shooting later uncovered, Cho had been diagnosed with severe anxiety conditions since middle school, which sparked a national discussion as to how much information the school and his RA should have been informed about him and his condition.

The goal of Intentional Interactions is for students to get to know their RAs better and for the RAs to give more comprehensive guidance - not to screen for at-risk students, Treter said.

"We already have a mechanism in place for students at-risk to be identified," he said.

In the system, RAs talk to RDs about certain students they see as at-risk.

"In no way, shape or form was that program meant to ascertain those individuals," he said.

Housing and Dining wants RAs to be there for their residents if they need advice or simply want to talk, Moody said.

"I want students to understand that their RA is not just an enforcer of community standards, that they are not just there to police the floor," Treter said. "That their role is much larger than that, and what they are charged with is really making sure that students are getting connected to resources and that they are having a good residential experience at AU from the time that they're here."

RAs at Georgetown University are required to serve as a “resource and referral person” to residents, and refer students to the RD when necessary, similar to the expectations of AU’s RAs. George Mason University also has a comparable policy. RAs at Catholic University are required to act as “role models” for their residents personally, socially and academically.

Freshman Chris Dychala said he did not think Intentional Interactions was an invasion of privacy, but he would not utilize the one-on-ones with his RA.

"It feels like we're being babysat by the RAs and having this intentional mentor just to make sure students are OK, I don't really think it's something that's necessary," Dychala said.

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