Scholars Get Off Scot-Free

By the end of the Fall semester New York University, Joaquin Ryan was ready for a night of reckless abandon. It was December of 1998, and the sophomore had just finished the last of his finals. So he did what any student who had spent the last three months studying diligently would do—he had a party. Earlier, Ryan and his friends had bought a few cases of beer, and fifths of vodka and whiskey. Ecstasy and marijuana also appeared on the night's menu.

Well over 20 people were stuffed into Ryan's NYU-contracted apartment at the height of the bash, shouting just to be heard over the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack blaring on the stereo. He wasn't worried about the New York Police Department cracking down on the party since his apartment was run by NYU. But he didn't expect the two resident advisers on his floor to bust up the end-of-the-semester fun.

"No one on the floor had any problem. Except, of course, the RAs, the little cops," says Ryan, who wears black eyeliner and sports fading black tattoos on his arms. The resident advisers supervise the students in NYU housing, and enforce NYU's drug and alcohol policies as well. "They knocked on the door; they were like 'Oh, what's going on?' " The RAs checked everyone's IDs. But before they left the party, they told Ryan not to worry.

illustration: Mark Danielson

A few days later, Ryan and his roommates got a notice in the mail. It said they had violated NYU's drug and alcohol policy prohibiting unauthorized parties, and cited them for serving alcohol to minors. But that was it. No police. No threats of expulsion. Not even a verbal reprimand from the campus security. Ryan said it was such a minor penalty that he threw away the university's notice. He hasn't heard anything since.

Ryan wasn't lucky; he was a student. Serving alcohol to minors at a party is a Class A misdemeanor in New York City, punishable by up to a year in jail and/or a $1000 fine. But because the violation occurred on NYU property and was handled by NYU staff, he got away with it. Like many universities and colleges across the country, NYU prefers to police and reprimand the students living on campus without the help of local authorities.

"It's not the penal system," says John Beckman, assistant vice president for NYU's public affairs office, regarding the university's practice. He says almost all offenses —except big ones like rape or murder—are referred to a three-member panel that hears each case only after a complaint is brought by a student. The panel listens to each complaint and decides if a student caught with, say, a gram of marijuana should be punished.

The following is a list of some of the most common offenses NYU students get busted for while living in the dorms and what happens to them when they're snagged off or on campus:

Minor in Possession: Not much happens if you're underage and caught with alcohol by the New York police. If the cops choose to cite you, the most you'll get is a $50 fine and/or up to 30 hours of community service. If the university catches you, it could mean expulsion from the NYU dorms or, worse, from the university. But expulsion for underage drinking is almost unheard-of. Sally Arthur, assistant vice president for student life at NYU, says the harshest sentence is a referral to the university disciplinary panel. This is the same type of referral that Joaquin Ryan threw in the trash. In addition, the university will contact your parents.

Possession of Marijuana: The Manhattan D.A.'s office will slap you with no more than a $250 fine and 15 days in jail if you are convicted of possessing less than 25 grams of marijuana. For more than 25 grams you're looking at a possible six-month jail term. Possession of eight to 16 ounces of marijuana is a Class E felony, punishable by up to four years in prison. If you're caught with marijuana by the university, it's another trip to the disciplinary panel.

Selling Marijuana: Four years in prison is the maximum for selling more than 25 grams of marijuana. The bigger the deal, the worse the penalty. NYU authorities will probably call the cops if you are caught peddling pot on campus. Also, the federal government could deny you financial assistance if you are convicted of selling any "controlled substance" under the aptly named Higher Education Act of 1998.

Fake IDs: A $100 fine and community service is the most you'll get for trying to buy alcohol with a fake ID. Again, the university will send you to the disciplinary panel.

Assault: Getting into a brawl is a Class A misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail if you're convicted. If the fight occurs on campus, you and the other person will be referred to the disciplinary panel, which will mediate the dispute.

"The university disciplinary system is not in lieu of the criminal justice system. Don't misunderstand it," says Beckman. He emphasizes that students don't have an automatic "Get out of jail free" card.

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