DeSantis wants ‘bill of rights’ for college students facing virus rules

The rules were put in place to protect students, faculty and staff from COVID-19, but the governor says some are “incredibly draconian.”
Students walk across the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida, where officials say they haven't needed to use extreme discipline to enforce rules related to COVID-19.
Students walk across the Tampa campus of the University of South Florida, where officials say they haven't needed to use extreme discipline to enforce rules related to COVID-19. [ MARTHA ASENCIO RHINE | Times ]
Published Sept. 25, 2020|Updated Sept. 26, 2020

As Florida’s public universities work to protect students from COVID-19, Gov. Ron DeSantis says he wants to protect students from their universities.

He said the state is exploring ways “to provide some type of bill of rights for students” who face discipline over social distancing rules intended to stem the spread of the virus.

“I understand universities are trying to do the right thing, but I personally think it’s incredibly draconian that a student would get potentially expelled for going to a party,” DeSantis said, commenting near the end of a public health round table he hosted on Thursday.

“That’s what college kids do, and they’re at low risk," the governor said. "And I just think that we’ve got to be reasonable about this and really focus the efforts on where the most significant risk is.”

On Friday, governor’s spokesman Fred Piccolo said the bill of rights was a concept at this point but more details would likely be available soon.

Many state universities recently updated their student conduct policies to include compliance with COVID-19 safety guidelines as part of their reopening plans. Those plans were approved by Florida’s Board of Governors. Penalties for violating the policies range from verbal warnings to expulsions.

Last week, Florida State University president John Thrasher sent a letter to students threatening to suspend those who continued to socialize after being asked to self-isolate or quarantine.

During the first week of the semester, 11 people were arrested at a house party held by a banned fraternity. Florida State has reported nearly 1,360 cases of the virus since that time.

Eric Chicken, president of Florida State’s faculty senate, said in an email that he and other faculty are concerned about the virus and fully support the school’s policy toward students who don’t comply with guidelines.

"The stakes are too high to do otherwise,” he said.

At the University of Florida, students who don’t wear masks can be banned from classrooms, and repeated offenses can lead to expulsion. The university has reported 1,078 cases of COVID-19 since reopening.

Spokesman Steve Orlando said UF planned to continue following its state-approved plan. He said no students had been suspended or expelled yet.

"The University of Florida’s Student Conduct Code provides ample protection and due process for all students, including those who fail to comply with our policies on face coverings and social distancing,” Orlando said.

Officials at the University of South Florida said they have not yet seen the need to use extreme disciplinary measures. The school has reported 226 positive cases since re-opening.

Spokesman Adam Freeman said USF would continue to follow its policies, which have been updated to include the possibility of expulsion for extreme noncompliance. The university also has created teams of people, including law enforcement, trained to diffuse conflicts over issues such as mask wearing.

Freeman said 10 students had been suspended for not complying with protocols for on-campus isolation spaces. But, after each case was reviewed, the suspensions were lifted.

"We continue to reinforce our message that all members of the university community have a shared responsibility to act in ways both on and off campus that will promote a healthy environment and protect the well-being of others,” Freeman said.

Timothy Boaz, president of the USF’s Faculty Senate, said he hadn’t heard an uproar from students about campus policies and thought most had been complying. Still, he thought it was important that consequences existed for noncompliance.

“This isn’t the situation we want,” he said. “Faculty would like to be in the classroom and we would all like to be back to doing the things we like to do. But the fact is this is still a serious situation and one that is deadly for some, including older students and staff who are on campus.”

Emily Moran, a freshman studying psychology at USF, said she hasn’t heard of large get-togethers taking place, and has spent most of her college career so far in her dorm room.

She said it did not appear to her that universities were responding too harshly. In her dorm, she said, resident assistants gave most people verbal warnings if they saw people without masks, and she hadn’t seen any students who didn’t comply.

“I think everyone here is responding appropriately,” she said. “I think there should be consequences if people don’t follow rules. It is a worldwide pandemic.”

Joshua Sanchez, a sophomore majoring in philosophy, said he didn’t see the need for disciplinary action, but didn’t think it needed governmental involvement either.

“If someone goes to a party, that’s on them if they catch the virus,” he said. “If we’re not all respectful and responsible, we’re going to be dealing with this for a long time.”

Youssef Benchekroun, a freshman majoring in industrial engineering, said he liked the sound of a student bill of rights but wasn’t sure what would go in it. He said he didn’t think students should be suspended for minor violations, but didn’t see it as an issue either.

“I think the guidelines have been pretty good so far,” he said. “And, so far, everybody I’ve seen is following them.”

In his Thursday remarks, DeSantis had some praise for Florida universities, saying “they have not gone way overboard like some of these others across the country.”

He said he was seeking to strike a better balance with virus-related rules on campuses.

“Some of these stories are just absolutely horrible," he said. "If I were a parent — to have a student treated the way some of those colleges in other parts of the country have treated them — I would be none too happy on that.”

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