Catholic school. The words evoke a stern image: punishment meted out at a ruler’s edge, crisp and abrupt as a cassock’s collar. At Catholic school, we might believe that trouble costs because discipline hurts.
In the early nineteenth century, discipline at Georgetown certainly hurt. The school adopted a model of nearly total control of student life; it left little outside of its disciplinary purview. And it invented creative punishments to chasten wrongdoers.
As its most elementary penalty, the college adopted detention, with a classical twist. When students committed minor offenses — petty theft, tardiness and the like — the Jesuits sent them to the Jug. There, they memorized and wrote out Latin verse.
For more serious offenses, the Jesuits imposed punishments of even greater severity and whimsy. Short of expulsion, the Jesuits would lock students away in the towers above Old North, occasionally for days on end. Once the students were trapped there, the Jesuits hoisted up bread, water or whatever other meager food they felt the offender deserved.
Others recognized the Jesuits’ ingenuity in this regard. And so they sent their most quarrelsome children to the only Catholic school around — Georgetown — in the hopes that their children might learn a lesson. Most of these students came from the South, from families wealthy enough to own slaves, whom the students had become accustomed to abusing, even sexually, with nearly total impunity. It fell to the Jesuits to control them.
On occasion, creativity failed the Jesuits in the face of their impossible charges. They resorted to whippings and expulsion in these cases. On other occasions, the Jesuits faced full-scale rebellion.
In 1833, a Jesuit prefect reported a student for boozing his way across Washington on a school-sponsored trip. Thomas Mulledy and the Jesuits responded by expelling the offender. But his peers were outraged. They grabbed rocks and whatever weapons were at hand and planned to attack the prefect. When more Jesuits interceded, the attack erupted into riot and students rampaged across the campus. For weeks, dozens of students menaced the Jesuits, who responded by piling up dozens of expulsions.
Eventually, Georgetown’s hilltop station in early America’s carceral archipelago returned to normalcy. Discipline continued to play a central role in university life — especially as students, Jesuits and administrators battled over the permissibility of alcohol and tobacco on campus — but the Jesuits’ approach softened as the collegiate model transformed.
Georgetown’s “second founder,” Patrick Healy, was the school’s most prominent early participant in a process affecting the disciplinary structure of universities until the present: the creation of the student-centered university. In this new scheme, which gained currency over the 100 years between Healy’s presidency and the end of the 1960s, students became assets rather than adversaries to administrators. Mirroring this and penal transformation more broadly, Georgetown began to shed its image as a reform school.
But this process did not occur without its hiccups. In the 1960s, students felt out the contours of their expanding power. In an oddly malcontent, misogynistic and rambunctious mix, Georgetown students staged a panty raid on Georgetown Visitation (for which the Pope admonished them), set fire to university buildings and called in bomb threats. The immediate result was several arrests, but nobody was whipped or sent off hungry to the tower. In fact, students managed to achieve action on some of their key grievances against the administration after the riot.
For comparison’s sake, expulsions in the 1830s came for reasons as minor as reading during mass.
This newly lax disciplinary norm can carry serious consequences. Take for example what may be the most serious case of student misconduct in Georgetown’s history.
David Shick died on February 22, 2000, after a drunken altercation in the parking lot of Lauinger Library. Two groups of students assaulted one another, and Shick was pushed, headfirst, to the ground. He died at the MedStar Georgetown University Hospital that night. And several weeks later the coroner ruled the death a homicide.
What happened to the students responsible for Shick’s death? First the university refused to tell. To much consternation, the situation invoked the requirements of the Family Education Rights Privacy Act (FERPA), which in most other cases would shield the privacy of the students. although FERPA carves out an explicit exception for records related to violent crime. But it was ultimately revealed that the students involved were not expelled; each returned to Georgetown after causing the death of a student. The university, as its nod to healing the community, decided to begin an annual celebration of the community — now debauched Georgetown Day.
Students, of course, have been and are expelled for much less.
It might seem capricious and arbitrary that some seemingly small infractions carry grave punishments at Georgetown today. It might also seem strange that a homicide gave rise to more blackouts than expulsions, or that Jesuits once whipped and confined students.
And it is — contrary claims from the administration aside — insofar as it arises from attitudes and structures that are little more than historical accidents.
Matthew Quallen is a junior in the School of Foreign Service. Hoya Historian appears every other Friday.