Colleges just don’t understand harm reduction

Clashes between SSDP and New College administrators represent growing confusion about handling harm reduction on campuses

Students, alumni, and their guests flooded the New College of Florida’s campus as the February Palm Court Party (PCP) fell into full swing. The campus population would increase dramatically over the weekend — and the drug and alcohol consumption was expected to rise, as well.

PCP’s are held each year around Halloween, Valentine’s Day, and graduation. The whole school chips in for the party, allocating nearly $5,000 dollars from the Student Allocations Committee per party. They spend about $2,000 for security, alone.

In the midst of the the February 2018 PCP, a friend approached Hannah Procell — a club leader of the school’s Students for a Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) chapter — and alerted her:

“Hey, I think the cops just locked up the room.”

The room in question was an under-the-radar “chill-out” room, operating out of New College’s Prayer and Meditation room. Here, students could have a safe, meditative space if they were having too intense of an experience at the party. And, SSDP volunteers provide people with water and call medical help if needed.

Procell first became involved in volunteering at this room during PCP’s in 2015. She continued her involvement and found herself, in 2018, having to run a more covert operation after the New College administration said that they could not approve the use of a chill-out room.

Until this year — when someone accidentally included the room in the party planning proposal — the chill-out room was never an official space approved by the college.

Instead, it operated under the assumption that the space was free to use, because it was a 24/7 student access space with the use of a student ID card. This was the same conclusion the student organizers stuck to after receiving the administration’s disapproval.

“I decided I would just use my ID card to enter the room and set up the materials — [fruit, water, calming ocean sounds, low lighting] — and I put a sign on the door with my phone number and the phone numbers of some other students who trained in harm-reduction,” Procell said. “We didn’t publicize it and I made it happen covertly the night of.”

 

 

When she caught word that someone had shut the room down, she went to check on it. Some resident advisors let her into the room — which had been locked from one side and barricaded with a bookshelf from the other. All the lights had been turned off and unplugged. So, Procell set the space back up, unbarricaded the door, and turned the lights back on.

“That was what happened the night of the event,” Procell said. “Then, the following week, I got a letter from the student housing staff that said: ‘There is a case against you for violating the code of conduct.’”

The letter charged her with disobeying directions given by school employees, misuse of campus space, inappropriate conduct at a school event, and fire-hazard violation (because of the low-light lamps).

Just the year before, a large chill-out room was set up near the Prayer and Meditation room, without any issue from the school. The school paper reported in a recap of that party that “the chill out rooms were also an important feature of [the party]. One in the X lounge called the heart room was centered around a large heart structure and adorned with red lights and snacks.”

Procell believes that the crack-down on harm-reduction efforts this year was a response to a case at Florida State University, where students from a fraternity were charged with involuntary manslaughter because of a drug-related hazing incident. She says that school administrations view harm-reduction services as a liability rather than an asset.

Mitchell Gomez, a New College alum and the Executive Director of DanceSafe, found it absurd that a school would punish students for providing services which increase the safety of students. He likened it to punishing students for handing out condoms.

Really substance use is the defining characteristic of our species,” Gomez said. “To turn a blind eye to that — particularly when people are in that college age bracket, where a lot of people have their first experiments with substances — I think it’s really negligent for any school not to provide services like that. Realistically, universities should be funding these services. But, to actively fight against them is more than just not providing them. It’s a further transgression against that duty to maintain safety of the students.”

Procell trudged through her hearing with the school’s community board, denying responsibility for the charges against her. But, she was still found responsible. As part of her punishment letter, she had to meet with the dean of students to reflect on “how her actions were a danger to the community.”

“I think that was one of the most upsetting things about how it all ended,” Procell said. “That even in that last conversation, it was still really difficult to communicate with the administration and open their eyes to where I was coming from.”

She says it is hard to deal with administration on these issues, because there is a lot of disagreement about what is truly best for students.

Emily Via — a previous PCP host — told the New College paper in 2018 that “the standards for PCP are different depending on who within the administration is talking, which makes things confusing.” The article goes on to say that new prohibitions like using chill-out rooms, increased security, or the growing substance-free spaces puts stress on party-throwers to appease everyone.

Procell thinks this confusion within the institution at her own school is representative of issues at colleges throughout the country.

It seems to be a struggle for state-funded schools to really support students in the best and healthiest ways,” Procell said.

In some cases, schools even punish students for services they are working to be able to provide. At the same time that Procell was being charged for her “harm-reduction” efforts, emails were circulating among the state colleges in Florida about developing new “risk-reduction” efforts. These efforts include working with student groups to reduce risk on the ground.

“So, it’s just really interesting to me that it’s a gray area of — ‘Oh, we approve of this kind of ‘risk-reduction,’ but we don’t approve of this kind of ‘harm-reduction,’” Procell said.

“The negative connotation that some authorities have towards [the phrase ‘harm reduction’] probably has to do with its association with substance abuse, and supporting substance users instead of punishing them.”  

New College of Florida declined to comment on risk-reduction strategies.

Although Procell was found responsible of misconduct by the school, she had the community’s support behind her throughout the process. There was a school-wide survey with over 100 responses recounting positive experiences with chill-out rooms.

And, a coalition of drug reform organizations introduced a now-annual award — the Prometheus Award — to give a nod to Procell’s harm-reduction efforts. The award is named for the Greek Titan who brought fire to mankind, in opposition to the wishes of the authorities. It is sponsored by DanceSafe, Erowid, MAPS, The Psychedelic Education and Continuing Care Program, SSDP, and The Zendo Project.

“This was really about the action,” Gomez said. “She was more concerned about doing what was right than following the rules. And, I think that is an important trait that we should be cultivating in activists. It isn’t about what is legal or illegal. It has to be about what is right or wrong.”

Since graduating from New College, Procell was hired on as an Advocacy Fellow for SSDP, which she describes as her “dream job.”

Her efforts have landed her among a pantheon of drug reform advocates hailing from New College including Gomez, Rick Doblin, Earth and Fire Erowid, the Harm Reduction Coordinator for MAPS Linnae Ponte, and the Communications Director for the Drug Policy Alliance Jag Davies.