Once upon a time, some two summers ago, I was seated on my second-hand couch, guiltily enjoying a VH1 marathon of “America’s Next Top Model” cycle two, when my cell phone beckoned with the “Can-Can” ring tone I’d assigned my parents. On the other end was my dad, who inquired as to what I was doing. Because I was far more interested in Yoanna’s photo shoot, I kept my answer short, “Just sitting on the couch, Dad.”
Imagine my surprise when my dad responded with: “Are you sure you’re not burning the couch?” And so began my relationship with the University of California, Tattletale.
Only a few weeks earlier, just as summer 2006 revved into gear, the traditional couch and mattress burnings blazed bright through the dirty streets of Isla Vista. My boyfriend and I were holed up at the neighbor’s house watching “COPS” when the love of my life ran to the window and shouted excitedly about the burning couch right outside the apartment complex. Being a little short on common sense, and also overly excited because of the promotion I’d received at work earlier in the day, I grabbed a shoebox – the first flammable object I spied – and hopped happily down the apartment stairs so I could chuck the cardboard into the already flaming fire.
OK, so I should’ve stopped there, but I stupidly dragged a broken card table into the fire before running around it in circles, thinking myself lucky that my pajamas were flame-retardant. Unfortunately, I was not arrest-retardant, and a few minutes after the fire fighters showed up, two undercover foot patrol officers clamped handcuffs around my wrists and hauled me into the police car. Long story short, I apologized for being a moron, explained I was just having an extraordinarily good day and was released to my boyfriend’s custody with a misdemeanor citation and a court date.
In addition to almost a thousand dollars in court restitution fees, 40 hours of court-mandated community service and two years of probation, the University of California made a decisive gesture and sent a letter home to my parents detailing my misdeeds – which resulted in the parental phone call above.
But wait! The university also informed me that in addition to my court punishments, the institution would require me to complete an additional 20 hours of community service and write a 10-page research paper about the harmful effects of couch fires.
I was suspended from summer classes and given a due date for my paper and community service work hours. A due date that, if missed, would result in a Fall Quarter suspension as well. The university also sent me several forms to sign – one of which was so poorly worded it forced me to admit I had started the fire. Begrudgingly, I completed more hours and wrote off the 10-page apology. A few days later, I was notified my paper was “too opinion-based” and was then given a two-week extension to submit a second “more appropriate” exposition.
Everyone receives several colorful, oversized postcards from the university detailing the “Drug and Alcohol No-Tolerance Policy.” For those of us lucky enough to have made it to 21 alive, we’re also so fortunate as to receive a “Happy 21st” e-mail from the university, lecturing, in addition to the greeting, about how to handle the momentous occasion responsibly.
According to the Student Affairs Web site, these “parent notification letters” have been around since 2002. Someone actually takes the time to review public records looking for UCSB student antics. The weirdest part? My parents were notified of a stupid stunt in Isla Vista at the end of my second year at UCSB, but they were never notified about my questionable behavior and consequent eviction from the dorms my first quarter freshman year. If the university is really trying to foster “more appropriate student behavior” with letters, e-mails and postcards, it’s failing.
Perhaps it’s the university trying to care, but let’s face it, a 10-page paper and a letter to my parents has very little impact. Otherwise, why else would my parents file the notification letter away? To ridicule me in front of my children one day?