It arrived through email in February of last year. The subject line declared, “Office of Student Conduct: Notice of Off-Campus Citation.” My eyes rolled passed the complaint: “Failing to ensure trash, litter or trash bags are placed in appropriate trash receptacle(s).” I cringed and kept scrolling. “Trash Work Sanction Hours. Amount: 10.” A pasted photo constituted the evidence of a crime. On the edge of my property sat a black trash bag from which two limp blue handles streamed. Such was my introduction to Georgetown’s trash regime.
The complaint offered me and my housemates the chance to appeal. We did, thinking our case was a slam dunk. We live in a multi unit apartment, with another tenant above us, and we had white trash bags with red handles, not the bruise-colored bags depicted. Nobody in our home had seen the trash bag, leading us to believe a complaint was made before we were able to remove our neighbors’ trash from the sidewalk. We explained our situation, attached a photo of our own trash bags and sent the appeal to student conduct.
Our appeal was summarily denied.
We protested, but were rejected again. It was explained to us that “our appeal did not provide evidence that the bag belonged to our neighbor.” We had mistakenly considered documenting the mismatch between our bags, white with red handles, and the bag in front of our home, black with blue handles, to be evidence.
Crestfallen and “salty,” we accepted our punishment: five work hours each, to be completed through the Office of Residential Living. Salty seemed like the appropriate mood since we were asked to spread salt in the neighborhood, de-icing the driveways of neighbors.
The day before our remaining sanction hours were due, an ice storm hit Georgetown, encasing the neighborhood in an inch-thick crystalline layer of ice. But sanction hours remained, and we were dispatched with ice picks. Awkwardly shuffling along dangerous sidewalks, we resembled an arctic chain gang in the service of the university.
Until this February, we considered our trashy adventure behind us. We acquired new neighbors, and heightened our vigilance against trash slippage. Then a storm hit us on a Friday, also trash day. Our neighbors’ can was buried in the snow, 3 feet heaped into a bank. My housemates and I departed for a conference in Montreal and returned to a new email in our inbox. The subject line was familiar: “Office of Student Conduct: Notice of Off-Campus Citation.” This time it featured an image of a trashcan, which was re-exposed by the snowmelt in our absence.
We doubted any efforts would draw leniency from our punishers in the Office of Student Conduct and did not waste our breath on an appeal this time.
It was a warm February and no snow remained on the ground when we completed our sanction hours. My housemates and I did penance in trash rather than ice, crawling over the neighborhood for five hours each and collecting our neighbors’ debris, including cigarette butts, shattered bottles of Pellegrino and even a Lunchables. The whole time we wondered where this trashy regime had come from, and why it stunk so badly. Why was a policy we assumed was meant to be educational enforced with such draconian zeal?
A little digging revealed the hand of the Citizens Association of Georgetown. The association represents the interests of neighbors to the university, pressuring it to retreat from west Georgetown while also retooling student life to push noise, alcohol and trash behind the front gates rather than extending beyond it. The university generously refers to the standoff as a “model of town-gown relations.”
Since the 1980s, the neighborhood has pushed Georgetown to pursue the financially and aesthetically difficult goal of housing nearly 100 percent of students on campus, as adopted in the 1989 Campus Plan. In 2007, the university had to sell the Wormley School, where it hoped to house its public policy institute, to luxury developers since the neighbors blocked a proposal to have classrooms put in an old school building.
In the 2010 Campus Plan, the university tailored student conduct processes to neighbors’ demands, banning student car ownership while agreeing to pay student employees to patrol and document students in the neighborhood for trash violations. When a student is documented, the infringers are required to complete community service, pay fines or be subject to other penalties. It stiffened similar penalties for off-campus noise and alcohol violations.
Students: The next time you wonder why you are subject to a disciplinary regime that stinks, look no further than just beyond the front gates.
Matthew Quallen is a senior in the School of Foreign Service. Hoya Historian appears every other Tuesday.