A group of freshman students have formed a Resident Hall Association to advocate for students living in the university’s first residence hall. They hope to work alongside university administration to improve on-campus living.
While students report they are generally satisfied with the university’s first privately-owned dormitory, which opened in August, they list among their concerns a set of fees listed in their contract, ranging from $25 dollars to $150 dollars.
President Alexis Harrison, a first-year education major, formed the group to advocate for residents and take student concerns to the Dean of Students, Jo Anna Benavides-Franke.
The dorm houses nearly 280 new students, according to Alexis Ruiz, director and general manager.
In a previously published article, this news outlet reported the university imposes the fines, according to Gina Cowart, spokeswoman for American Campus Communities(ACC), which built and manages the dorm.
To set policies and a fine structure, Benavides said the university looked at other models for comparison, including Texas A&M University-Prairie View and Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi.
But A&M-San Antonio’s fines are generally higher than those at comparison institutions.
Michael Stark, director of residential living and learning, of Texas A&M University-Commerce which owns and operates their own dorm, says,
“Our preference is to never need to fine a student. Many fines are in place as a deterrent, but also to cover costs.”
“We try to structure fines in such a way that we aren’t making money,” he said.
Private-public partnerships (P3’s) are becoming more popular in universities across the country in response to budget cuts across higher education. Under the terms of this partnership, ACC leases the land provided by A&M San Antonio and covers all costs for building and maintenance.
Shortly after move-in, Armando Trevizo received a $150 dollars fine for failing to comply with the rules and regulations of the Esperanza Hall lease agreement. Trevizo violated visitation guidelines when he and a friend were studying together 23 minutes past curfew.
According to the contract, the rules and regulations state the tenant may have visitors weeknights from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Hours extend until midnight on weekend. Visitation outside of the allotted hours can result in a fine up to $150 dollars.
Residents, interviewed over a span of two months, said they are fed up with what they consider an abuse of power by resident assistants who are imposing the maximum fine amounts outlines in the lease.
Celeste Luna, first-year biology major, and the association’s secretary explains how residents feel.
”We wouldn’t mind getting fined because, yeah, it was my mistake. Give me a $25 dollars fine the first time, the second time $50 dollars. The more you get caught the more it increases. We’re in college; we’re freshmen,” she said. “We are relying on what little job we have or what little our parents give us.”
According to Angelika Williams, director of financial aid and scholarships at A&M-San Antonio, nearly 80 percent of the students living at Esperanza Hall are on financial aid.
While students fear they will not be able to pay fines they are also concerned about their privacy.
“When they do rounds, that’s when they give people fines,” Harrison said. “They will listen up against the door to hear what’s going on in there. I have seen them do it. When they knock on your door, they are looking through your peephole to see if you are moving and to see if you are trying to hide somebody; we have no privacy.”
“We pay a lot to live here and $150 dollars fine is a lot,” Harrison said. “They constantly threaten to fine us.”
Tenants complain of restrictive policies such as not being allowed to hang posters or flyers on windows or doors, described in the lease to prevent “and avoid marring the facilities.”
Other policies that result in fines of up to $150 dollars include “no incense or other odor producing items.”
Fines carry a “one size fits all” rate of $150 dollars, while a few carry rates of up to $300 dollars.
This news outlet asked for the copy of the media policy but were only directed to reach out to Jo Anna Benavides-Franke for the information.
Students said they feel living conditions could be less restrictive and communication could be improved.
Azia Franklin, kinesiology major, said one of the reasons she joined the association was to formalize policies.
“This is the first dormitory here at the school,” Franklin said. “I feel not a lot of things are developed and everyone really isn’t on the same page. They just go with the flow.”
Franklin said her goal is for everything to be set in stone.
In an interview with Benavides-Franke on Oct.9, the Dean of Students said she was familiar with the association and had met with its leadership.
Benavides said students had come to her with concerns in addition to the fine structure, including providing students free laundry services, and loosening curfew restrictions.
Student leaders in the association said they place some of the blame on the dormitory’s four resident assistants, who are given the authority to apply fines.
“Some of the RA’s joke about giving a fine, it’s not funny,” said Autumn Everett, first-year criminology major.
Reporters requested interviews with the resident hall assistance through the dormitory’s two professional staff, but were again denied due to American Campus Communities’ media policy.
Benavides said there were three reasons a resident could receive a fine: visitation violations, damage to property and damage or loss of resident keys.
But upon review of the lease, an additional 36 reasons were listed.
Students receive a Student Housing Agreement and Rules and Regulations documentation that outline all rules residents must abide.
Seeking information, including how many students have received fines since the dormitory opened, this news outlet filed a public information request on Oct. 10 with Texas A&M University-San Antonio.
These requests were forwarded to the Office of the Attorney General who has 45 business days after receiving to determine whether to comply or deny the request.
While the university has not openly provided specific numbers regarding how frequent or pervasive the fining has been at the dorms, many residents have come forward complaining of the cost prohibitive nature of living in the dorms as a result.
In interviews with dozens of students living at Esperanza Hall, many indicated the the fine structure was a major factor in whether they would return the following year.
“A lot of people don’t want to come back,” Everett said.