When the hugs don't work...

July 22, 2005

Should institutions be able to seek ASBOs for students? asks Michael North

At 6am one Sunday, Vivienne Hillier opened her door and was "hit by a wall of sound". The noise came from a house 100 yards away that was rented by seven students. "There were 50 to 100 young people there, the noise was just like being in a football stadium."

It was not the first time that Hillier, a retired teacher, and other residents of Sandringham Road in Norwich had suffered such a barrage.

Similar incidents over the preceding weeks had forced many of them to move to friends' houses or sleep in parts of their homes less exposed to the racket.

Last month, they could take no more. A meeting was arranged with the police, the council's environmental officer and the University of East Anglia with the aim of curtailing the activities of the "rave house" - and "to stop a resident murdering a student", Hillier says. The locals asked the university to withhold degrees from the seven students, who had just graduated, but the group walked away with a slap on the wrist.

Such antisocial behaviour was predictably discussed at a recent conference of the Association for Student Residential Accommodation, but a surprise addition to the agenda was the proposal to use antisocial behaviour orders to deal with disruptive students. ASBOs are a legal tool associated more with persistent delinquent offenders who terrorise communities. But Nicola Buchanan, a lawyer with the legal firm Eversheds who was running workshops at the conference, argues that there may be a place for them in universities.

She says there has been a steady rise in inquiries from institutions wanting advice on dealing with "general antisocial behaviour" in halls of residence. And she believes the ASBO - Jintroduced by the Home Office in 1999 "to target activities that disrupt the lives of individuals, families or communities" - could be useful. It would speed the process of ridding a campus of a potentially dangerous student, Buchanan says.

At the moment, only the police, local councils and housing associations can seek an ASBO. Universities may take out an injunction against an individual to prevent him or her from, say, approaching a residence or person, but a breach of the order by the student entails lengthy contempt-of-court proceedings. With an ASBO, the police are called and the person is arrested.

"Universities have to address this interim period (while they institute proceedings against an individual) for really serious cases when they are reluctant to leave the student in accommodation," Buchanan says.

Not everyone would welcome ASBOs on campus. The thought alone alarms many university staff who deal with disruptive students. Only last week, academics at the British Society of Criminology meeting condemned their use as akin to "witch-hunting".

Annie Grant, dean of students at UEA, had to deal with the rave-house incident. She says the order is like using "a sledgehammer to crack a nut".

She argues that the network of wardens, security officers and welfare and support services, reinforced by the university's rules and outside agencies such as the police, are sufficient to deal with errant behaviour. "Students are an intelligent group of people, and it would be very rare that we could not find a solution within our own powers and procedures," she says.

She adds: "We want to resolve things before a student ends up with a criminal record. We do not want them to have ASBOs."

Grant's feelings are echoed by Jean Baxter, deputy head of admissions at Leicester University and a member of Leicester's widening participation team. "I do not want to see the day when we need ASBOs without disciplinary procedures kicking in first. If you have reached the point where someone has an ASBO, it's too late," she says.

Like Grant, Baxter is sympathetic to students' need for space to develop into adults. "It's about a whole bunch of 18-year-olds let loose on a community, about teaching them to be grown-ups and how to live in the world, in a community. I have never met a student yet who was just plain evil."

Nimmi Hutnik, a psychology lecturer at Surrey University and warden of a university residence of 400 students, is well aware that dealing sympathetically with problem students can be labour-intensive. But she is wary of issuing ASBOs to students. "I do not like to label too quickly, it jeopardises people's lives. Students are already split from their family support system. We try to use a tough-minded but tenderhearted approach. We think through issues carefully."

Mere mention of the term "ASBO" angers Veronica King, vice-president of the National Union of Students. "It's an absolute infringement of students'

rights. It could be dangerous. What's going to be the limit? Who is going to decide when a student is behaving antisocially? It could be used too freely."

The debate over whether universities should be able to seek ASBOs has, in any case, only just begun. George Blanchflower, chair of the Association of University Chief Security Officers, says it has not yet been considered by his association's members, who work in 109 UK universities. "The consensus is that what we have seems to work reasonably well. Bad behaviour in students is usually something daft, or they are just drunk. If it happens twice, it's unusual. By the point that the student has got the message that their university career is in the balance, they think better of doing it again. They are not like the persistent offenders who get ASBOs."

Blanchflower concedes, however, that an ASBO would help universities to remove a student from halls quickly. "It is tempting to think that it is always nice to have another missile in the armoury," he says.

Buchanan believes there is a misunderstanding about the potential value of ASBOs in higher education. Her colleague Sian Jones-Davies, an expert on student eviction cases, adds: "Maybe universities are in denial, maybe they are frightened."

The two lawyers feel that the key task is to make sure from the outset that universities have all the powers they need to deal efficiently with every situation that might endanger the student community. In particular, the pair have been working with universities to ensure that there is no conflict between regulations governing university residences and university rules in general.

Buchanan says: "We have had the situation where a student is expelled from the university and the university cannot get them out of their accommodation because of the special (tenancy) rules that apply to residential accommodation. It is a big problem. The contract must give universities a full arsenal of powers. From the legal perspective, what we can do at the moment is to give institutions the best possible powers. It would be nice for them to also have the ability to give ASBOs."

Buchanan believes that it will take a well-publicised incident before universities start to push for a change in legislation that will arm them with the power to issue ASBOs.

The experience of Hillier and the Sandringham Road residents suggests that universities may soon be under pressure to contemplate the measure.

Certainly Hillier is unimpressed by the university's handling of the students, and by the students' general demeanour. "The students were calling the shots, saying, 'We'll just have one more party'. Everyone (trying to deal with the situation) was nice to them, they didn't want to be anti-student. Talk about gently-gently. We were told that they all came from nice homes and were properly brought up. But people who are properly brought up do not behave that way."

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