Getting Burned

Jaime Coyne

My life has become my favorite satire, Catch-22. It’s fun — there is the similarity of impossible problems and blatant injustice, but the minor difference that it’s really happening.

After winter break, my roommate found a pink slip on her desk which cited that our dorm room had a Fire Safety Violation. Specifically: one candle. It explained that an official sanction would follow. This all seems perfectly normal. Students often admit among their peers that they have something in their dorm room that they are technically not allowed to keep there. Occasionally you even hear of someone getting in trouble for having such items. Perfectly normal, except for one tiny detail: there wasn’t a candle in my dorm room.

At first we laughed about it, The Candle That Was Not. We told a few friends. It made a good, quick story: “Campus Safety found a nonexistent candle in my dorm room.” Until two weeks later, when I received the aforementioned official sanction via a letter in my campus mailbox. The letter informed me that I was receiving a Disciplinary Warning (because “this behavior is unacceptable”) and a $25 fine.

Now I was pissed. I’ll pay a stupid fine, whatever. I’ll play into the system and give a bereft university a measly $25 to avoid receiving angry emails from the Accounting office. But a Disciplinary Warning? Seriously? If I’m going to get a warning for something, could it at least be for something I’ve actually done? Not to mention, my roommate didn’t receive a letter. Apparently Casper the Friendly Candle belonged to me.

As we scoured our room, looking for anything that might vaguely resemble The Thing Which Must Not Be Named, the futility of my problem hit me: it didn’t matter what was in our room now, because Campus Safety confiscates all illegal items they find. And then, without marking down a description or taking a snapshot, they destroy said contraband. I had no way of proving that I had never had a candle in my room, because how do you prove that something doesn’t exist? Campus Safety could not provide evidence that I had had a candle, either. We both stand empty-handed, so Campo wins, because they’re the authority and they said so.

I appealed the sanction, already understanding why doing so was completely useless but unwilling to do nothing about it. The Res Life person assigned to deal with appeals from my building was very nice, but gave the expected message of appeasement: I’ll look into it and get back to you. I had gotten my roommate’s permission to mention the fact that I had gotten in trouble and she had not, when neither of us had had a candle, and the appeals officer explained that that was an oversight and they would be sure to send her a letter. So I got my roommate in trouble, too. The Res Life person also kept saying that he was glad this was the worst problem I had, which infuriated me. Is it less legitimate that I’m being wrongly accused of something because the actual charge is petty? I’m sorry I have not entered your office with needle tracks up my arm or slit wrists. Shall we set goals for next time? Maybe create a task force on how to steadily increase the extent of my problems?

He never got back to me, and my roommate never received a letter. Over a month later I received an email informing me that I was overdue to pay my $25 fine. I had assumed that my fine would be put on hold while ResLife did its extensive investigating, so I called up my appeals officer. My name did not ring a bell for him, and he seemed to have no recollection whatsoever of the long, complicated and probably rather unique story that I once again relayed. He said he needed to talk to my roommate (which clearly he had never made any effort to do), and would do so and call me before the end of the day. A month and a half after I received a formal letter accusing me of specific crimes, my roommate received an email which, paraphrased, said, “Hello, a candle was found in your room. Was it yours? Thanks.” She wrote back, essentially, “No, but I’ll pay the fine to get this over with.”

When he still hadn’t called the next day, I called him again. He said that the warning and fine would be repealed, because my roommate had taken responsibility. At which I turned toward my roommate, five feet away, and said, “No she didn’t. I read that email.” So, the result of nearly half a semester’s inquiry was, “You’re in trouble and there’s nothing you can do it about it. But, hey, you can split the fine with your roommate.”

So I caved and finally allowed my dad to call and hopefully yell the Administration into submission, since that generally seems to lead to success stories. Instead, a few different people told him I should call Corey Landstrom, apparently the alpha and omega of the disciplinary team. He, too, was very nice, and not even patronizing, and, after meeting with my roommate as well, determined that he could erase the fine. Only the Disciplinary Warning, the reason I had put so much time and energy into this “appeals system,” remains.

Landstrom explained that the warning will basically never count against me, which is good to know. But the principle of the matter still remains – I’ve been charged for a violation that I did not commit. Campus Safety has no proof that I had a candle, they are simply right because they are the ones in authority. Such reasoning would not hold up in a court of law. The lesson is painfully simple: document the contraband you confiscate, Campus Safety. Because I know I am telling the truth. I sure as hell would not put myself through this excruciatingly inefficient and ineffective process if I wasn’t. Stop and take a damn Polaroid before you destroy all your evidence. The image in my snapshot would have been eerily blank.