Know your rights: privacy

Everyone wants a little privacy now and then. Maybe it’s to prepare for an exam in peace and quiet. Maybe we need to apply a fresh coat of ointment to that oh-so unsightly rash. Sometimes we just don’t want our personal information to be public knowledge- a very realistic desire in this age of identity theft. While our reasons may vary greatly, almost everyone agrees that privacy is an important commodity, and one of which there’s nowhere nearly enough. So what is a student to do? Parents want to know our comings and goings. Faculty and staff get to know us over the years, frequently under less-than-perfect circumstances. And while many students at Western live off-campus, the majority still reside in the residence halls. With another person in the same room and hundreds of others in the same building, can anyone really expect privacy? The federal government seems to think so. FERPA (the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act) governs what many departments of the University can and cannot tell others about a student. Aside from general information that’s readily available to the public, the University generally can’t divulge any details unless the student authorizes it to do so. Students have a chance to sign a FERPA waiver during their orientation in case they do want the University to distribute certain information to certain people (such as their parents). Of course, these waivers are entirely optional, and without a waiver, the University is tight-lipped about pretty much everything, even your room number and telephone number. For those living in the residence halls, there is naturally another concern- those pesky room inspections. According to Keshia Martin, these are announced well ahead of time, so use that notice to prepare. Put away anything and everything even slightly incriminating. If it’s in a closed drawer or closed closet, the R.A. isn’t supposed to go looking for it. A housing violation has to be in “plain sight” to count. This includes alcohol, cooking appliances, and anything else that might lead to a write-up. It won’t hurt to slip that hotplate in a drawer (turned off, of course) for a few days until the room inspections are complete, and it saves everyone a lot of headaches. There are really only three exceptions to the “plain sight” rule. When a student goes home for Christmas break, they must clean and defrost their refrigerators and leave them open for the R.A. to inspect. If you’re under-age and have a refrigerator full of alcohol, expect to come back to a write-up, whether you left the refrigerator open or not. Go ahead and drink up your alcohol before you leave, or better yet, give it to a friend to drink who is of legal age. Another exception deals with websites like MySpace and Facebook. If you post something (anything) on these websites, expect it to come back and bite you. Keshia told me she has a lot of trouble with students asking to be her friend on Facebook, and when she clicks through to their web pages, they have pictures of themselves drinking or doing something else that violates their housing agreements. Just don’t put these pictures on the web. Don’t post comments about how much you drink or how often you smoke marijuana. Not only will R.A.s have a problem with this but future employers will too. Get into the habit of keeping your “dirty underwear” out of sight; it will save everyone a lot of trouble in the future. Finally, don’t expect something that happened off campus to stay off campus. Remember, R.A.s don’t have to be there to hear about it from their friends. Parties that serve alcohol may not card you, but drinking underage is still against University policy. If someone posts pictures of you on MySpace with a beer in each hand, expect the word to get around sooner or later. Use your natural common sense and don’t “tell on yourself” unintentionally like so many students do. Maintaining your privacy is something you have to work at, so keep these tips in mind when “bending” the rules a little:Don’t volunteer information. If you don’t want someone to know something, don’t mention it. If someone asks what you were doing last night, say something general like “hanging out” or “watching TV.”Clean up your room. The more junk there is lying around, the more likely it is that you left something out and visible that you’re not supposed to have in the first place. Keep it put away when you’re not using it, and no one will go looking for it.Don’t brag to friends, especially in public, and especially if they have strong morals. While strong morals are a great thing to have, they tend to lead to problems for the rest of us when we’ve done something “questionable” in the recent past.Keep your image clean. Be very careful about what you post online. Think before you comment. Don’t present yourself as an alcoholic, druggy, loser, psycho, etc., even if you think you are one.Police can only search your room if you do something pretty stupid. Don’t smoke marijuana in the residence halls (it smells very strongly), and don’t make a lot of noise. If you think you might get arrested, calmly move away from anything incriminating. Police can search anywhere they think you might have hidden something, including the area immediately around you.