Universities ask students to play 'coronavirus police,' report peers who might have COVID-19

Universities across the country are encouraging students to report peers who are not following university guidelines surrounding COVID-19.

Some professors are concerned about the implications this could have.

As colleges across America reopen for in-person learning this fall, some are asking students to report peers who might not be following guidelines that universities have set up to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

For example, the University of Miami has set up a system where “students are encouraged to report concerns about unsafe behaviors” of their peers, and administrators will review the concern.

Texas A&M University has a similar system where faculty members and administrators can file a report if they are concerned someone else on campus has COVID-19 or has come into contact with the virus.

Tulane University also has a system where university members can report “problematic behavior” related to COVID-19, and depending on the circumstance, are asked to call the university police.

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“Do you really want to be the reason that Tulane and New Orleans have to shut down again?” Tulane Dean of Students Erica Woodly wrote on the reporting page announcement.

Yale University is even encouraging students to “make reports concerning COVID-19” to the university hotline.

The University of North Georgia has set up a similar “COVID-19 Concern for Others Form,” which prompted a letter to the university from the Southeastern Legal Foundation, which claims that the form may violate students’ right to privacy and could possibly censor speech.

“Colleges have a duty to protect student health and safety, especially during uncertain times like these. However, even in unprecedented times, students’ First Amendment rights remain unchanged. That means colleges and universities cannot engage in viewpoint or content-based discrimination, cannot enact vague and overbroad policies, and cannot chill student expression,” the letter stated.

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”With a Concern Form at students’ fingertips, students wishing to prevent a controversial speaker from visiting campus or to stop a student organization from garnering interest in their cause can simply report members of that organization as symptomatic. Without stricter reporting guidelines and limits, it appears that such events could be shut down entirely with the press of a button. This may sound unlikely, but then again, who would have predicted 2020 to turn out as it has?” the letter added.

The SLF also said that the form could violate students’ Fourth Amendment rights by forcing students to get tested for COVID-19, even when there is no cause.

”Under the Fourth Amendment, individuals cannot be subject to unreasonable searches and seizures. The Supreme Court has even considered that right in the context of cheek swabs. The Court has held that a criminal arrested and charged with a serious crime can be subjected to a DNA cheek swab, so long as the charges are supported by probable cause, meaning there must be sufficient likelihood that the crime occurred. However, a swab is unconstitutional if there is no probable cause, the charge is not criminal, or if the DNA is used to gather medical information about the criminal,” SLF explained. 

”Will UNG, upon receiving a report of a symptomatic student, subject that student to an invasive COVID-19 swab? Surely the university understands that this action would violate the Fourth Amendment,” the group adds.

In addition to encouraging other students to report their peers if they have concerns about their possible exposure to COVID-19, other schools are implementing different student volunteer programs to reduce the spread of the virus.

Columbia University, for example, is implementing a “Student Ambassador” program, where students will become a “peer leader” and “expert” on “COVID-19 prevention, the Columbia Community Health Compact and resources for students.”

The University of Denver is taking things a step further and is requiring students to “install an application on their mobile devices” that will track their location to aid with contact tracing efforts, as Campus Reform previously reported.

[RELATED: University of Georgia encourages students to wear masks during sex]

While universities across the country are involving students in their COVID-19 prevention plans, two Ivy League academics urged universities to not make students “the coronavirus police” in a New York Times  op-ed. 

Karen Levy, an assistant professor at Cornell University and Lauren Kilgour, a doctoral candidate at Cornell both agree that involving students “makes sense,” but that the systems may not be very effective and “put students in very tough positions.”

“Of course, many students understand the high stakes of a coronavirus outbreak and have a desire to help keep their communities safe. Some students may feel a sense of civic duty to participate in policing their classmates’ behavior,” they wrote. “But others may be loath to report on their friends, especially when doing so could result in harsh penalties.”

”People report on one another (truthfully or falsely) for a number of personal reasons, including competition, revenge, leverage and everyday aggravations. There’s every reason to assume that these motivations will bubble up in the college context, too. Students have their own loyalties, broken hearts, rocky roommate relationships and fraternity codes of silence,” Levy and Kilgour added.

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