Each year during Orientation Week, 12 to 15 off-campus student homes are paid surprise visits by administrators and the Duke University Police Department as part of a program called Knock and Talks. We commend the University for attempting to foster good town-gown relations. However, that being said, Knock and Talks does the opposite, immediately engendering distrust among students, neighbors and administrators at the very beginning of the year.
Imagine a student waking up one morning to an administrator and multiple uniformed police officers knocking at the door, there to discuss what living off campus means for his or her living group. If the goal is to ease tensions in local Durham neighborhoods, this strategy will likely not work. It’s understandable that many students feel intimidated by the administrators and DUPD visiting their homes unannounced. The administration’s goals for Knock and Talks would be more successful if its tone was more welcoming and less intrusive.
This problem starts with the parties sent into student homes for these conversations: police and administrators. Although the operations of these two organizations may overlap, doing Knock and Talks together gives the impression that they work as a single unit—almost as if DUPD was the armed enforcer of Student Conduct policies. It also starts the year off on a negative note, alerting students to possible punishment rather than encouraging them to pursue good behavior by choice. Furthermore, not giving off-campus students advanced notice for Knock and Talks visits makes the whole proceedings even more intrusive.
The University also seems to select the off-campus houses they visit for Knock and Talks based on citations from the previous years. Since a brand new group of seniors will move into an off-campus house at the start of each year—albeit seniors often in the same student group as last year’s occupants—scaring students before they’ve done any wrongdoing breeds even more distrust.
Duke Student Government should be commended for working to create a new model to meet the currently unfulfilled goal of Knock and Talks: fostering better relations between off-campus students and the greater Durham community. One possible model is a meet-and-greet, where students and their Durham neighbors could meet in person. Students are more likely to respond positively to the family next door than Student Conduct or DUPD when discussing potential issues with parking, loitering and noise. Perhaps a university administrator could be present, but the level of formality would be akin to that of a resident assistant talking to her residents at the beginning of the year—an optimistic start—rather than a stern administrative warning. Ideally, this meet-and-greet would take place on campus and be open to any off-campus students, not just those deemed likely troublemakers. The opportunity to share any safety information about living in Durham should also be available to any off-campus students.
Overall, the objectives of the Knock and Talks program are good ones. Students and neighbors should certainly be considerate and even friendly toward one another. But the current model of the program—which only increases wariness—cannot accomplish this. We hope that a new model, one that emphasizes openness and mutual trust, replaces it soon.