Restore Neighborliness, Reorient SNAP

October 25, 2019

Townhouses in the Georgetown neighborhood sit on a cloudy day. Flickr

SNAP stands for Student Neighborhood Assistance Program, but over the years, the acronym has turned into a verb with a less-than-positive connotation. To be “SNAPsed,” in Georgetown students’ vernacular, doesn’t mean to be assisted. It describes an unpleasant, frustrating, and often demeaning experience. The program’s goals are noble—It aims to foster safety, respect, and peace in a community with a broad range of residents. But by disincentivizing neighborly communication and unequally distributing the burden of conflict resolution, it has instead deepened the divide and tightened the strain between students and their non-student neighbors. 

For many students, living in West Georgetown or Burleith is their first college experience in a non-university managed home, and it’s an opportunity to prepare for post-grad life. Relationships with neighbors are an important part of living in any community, and students should be able to have them here without the fear of being subjected to more scrutiny and punishment than the person who lives next door. 

SNAP was created to protect students from crime and the consequences of D.C. law enforcement, but one of its purposes is to police students, and neighbors know this. SNAP in its current form would not exist without the pressure permanent neighborhood residents applied to the university when it was trying to get its 2010 campus plan approved. Neighbors can call and complain about student behavior whenever they want, whether it’s a disruptive party or three people watching TV that can be heard through a shared wall. There is no threshold for what warrants a response from SNAP, and there is no system to hold the callers accountable. Callers remain anonymous, and they do not have to engage in a conversation with the people they complained about. 

Although anyone can call SNAP, all SNAP can do to a non-student resident is notify them of the complaint, allowing them to decide how to respond. Students, on the other hand, must kick all non-residents out of the house and follow the exact directions of SNAP—or risk fines, sanction hours, and other disciplinary action from the university. SNAP is obligated to log every call they receive about a student’s house, as well as their visits. 

This system would make sense if every call made to SNAP was reporting a violation of the law, but this is not the case. Sometimes students do throw loud parties, but non-student residents call for reasons as trivial as house decorations they dislike or to preemptively warn about a party that hasn’t even happened yet. These calls reveal the ugly underlying power dynamic between students and other Georgetown residents. In a normal community, neighbors are expected to communicate with one another about their needs and frustrations. Face-to-face conversation fosters empathy and mutual respect, whereas SNAP creates bitterness and the sense that as a student, you do not deserve basic civility. 

This is not to say that SNAP should be abolished. Its role as a buffer against the consequences of the D.C. legal system, were MPD to be called, is beneficial, and its ability to have eyes on the street and enhance the safety of the neighborhood is important. However, this editorial board believes that the role of SNAP as an intermediary between students and neighbors must be reformed to one with a more equitable distribution of accountability. 

This shift in the SNAP system can be accomplished by raising the stakes for callers, as well as allowing for more case-by-case discretion in how to mitigate the situation when SNAP is called. People who call SNAP should be required to provide their name, and in the case of ongoing tensions, participate in a mediation process with their student neighbors. When the behavior being complained about falls within the parameters of D.C. law, SNAP should be able to mitigate with discretion. If their behavior is legal, students should have the freedom, just as other residents do, to respond to SNAP’s advice in whatever way they see fit. 

In much more dangerous situations, such as reporting child abuse, anonymity policies ensure the safety of the caller, and even then they can have negative consequences when they’re made for misinformed or prejudiced reasons. The stakes in SNAP calls are not nearly as high, which is all the more reason for introducing accountability. Knowing that your name is attached to a call and that you will have to engage in the situation after you make it can help prevent minor and unsubstantiated complaints. It also allows the Office of Neighborhood Life to keep a record of the people who call most often and use that knowledge in order to contextualize and handle cases properly. Most importantly, it encourages neighbors to approach one another about their woes before calling SNAP. 

The ultimate purpose of a program like SNAP is to relax the tensions between students and their neighbors while protecting students from interacting with MPD. But placating neighbors by punishing students is not the way to accomplish this goal. Fostering mutual respect and communication is. Students deserve to be treated with civility as much as permanent residents deserve to live peacefully.

Editorial Board
The Editorial Board is the official opinion of the Georgetown Voice. Its current composition can be found on the masthead. The Board strives to publish critical analyses of events at both Georgetown and in the wider D.C. community. We welcome everyone from all backgrounds and experience levels to join us!

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Richard N. McGlothlin

I am a permanent neighborhood resident and an alum (CAS’93) that has lived in the same home since February of 1990 (when I moved out of my dorm room). Back in the early 1990s there was no SNAP, instead there were almost weekly MPD calls on notorious homes and students being thrown in a wagon and hauled off to District 2 HQ, creating criminal records. I am somewhat unique in that I have been at parties that were broken up (both as a student and in the late 90s as a paid GU employee asked to walk out the front door because I was legal) and called to break parties up (including to SNAP where a friend of mine and current student at the time answered the line), I even once called the police at the end of a party I hosted as a student because there was a passed out guy on my sofa with no ID other than a court subpoena. Until you have nine squad cars, two fire trucks and EMS roll on your house at 6am because you called them…well, you haven’t lived. I also always gave my name and number, granted at times I feared retribution…but hey it is a land line and has been attached to my student account in the GU system since 1990, I figured they could deduce or at least google it.

If you think tensions between town and gown are terse now, it is only from your lack of perspective of what the last couple of decades have been like…certainly not your fault for not being born and engaged in hyper local issues, but please don’t presume to have facts not in evidence. Until recently, half or three fourths of the students were allowed to live off campus at any time…in my time, only one year of on campus housing was required, and if you paid the bills, they didn’t really care where you were. The reality is, there are just less people living off campus now than in the last four decades and in far fewer residences, so the conflicts are fewer and further between. That isn’t to say they don’t exist…until the last year or so it was regular for me to have current students criminally trespass on my property, including observing members of my family through bathroom skylights…working with property owners to have roof access removed mixed with pressure from the University seems to have stopped that, for now…as it is always just for now, given next year it will be a new group and you never know what you are going to get. Additionally, I have had numerous incidents of destruction of property (even gotten a couple of arrests and prosecutions) and on more than one occasion watch an inebriated student almost walk off the edge of my house to their death. Still, it is much better than it was in the 1990s when stabbings, assaults, and constant police calls were part of the mix.

I will heartily concede that there is a drastic imbalance in what SNAP can do with regards to student residents and permanent residents…which stems entirely from contracts that students sign with the University and terms you accept when enrolling. Your behavior is representative of the University, as mine once was, and as such the University has a desire to mitigate any behavior that would be harmful to the University in order to protect the University’s long term interests (they were here before any of us and will be long after us, student and permanent resident…they play the long-long game). Before I got to the hilltop, the tensions in Georgetown were so high that building plans for a Co-generation power plant were scuttled by neighbors incensed at the every expanding and increasingly rowdy behavior around the campus. The next decade was highly contentious with Georgetown University struggling to adapt to its roll in a new era (this held for student – administration concepts too, as suddenly students expected services beyond education and really poor food and housing). SNAP eventually grew out of this long season of discontent, as it as evolved, from a part time (Thurs-Sat 8pm-3am ish, any other hours calls would go to DoPS or Off Campus Living) to full time tool has served to create a buffer for the University with the neighborhood and protect students from more severe consequences. Personally, I consider it to be the finest effort to mitigate a natural tension between folks at very different stages of life.

While your idea of face to face interaction and problem resolving between student and permanent residents is noble on the surface it is also somewhat naive. I have always been friendly with my student neighbors, have loaned tools, ladders, helped fix problems such as a burst laundry hose or electrical issue. If I have had an issue with noise, I have always tried to first knock on the door and talk face to face…let me assure you it almost never works. Understandably, a student resident may be unhappy with the request of a neighbor to “keep it down” on a Thursday night because we have work in the morning and they worked their schedule to be all T-Th classes. Take that frustration, developed over a couple of years going to parties off campus and maybe a few months living/hosting parties off campus and imagine over a decade, or two, or three. All of you are gone in four years…almost all of us will still be here and another cycle will start. Rinse and repeat. Since we are human, we bring the weight of our history to any conversation…given that conversations are frequently at the time of conflict where tensions are heated and more often than not an adult beverage or five has been consumed, sometimes on both sides…most of these face to face meetings make things worse, not better. SNAP plays the role of avoiding the escalating conflict. It means that my petite fiance does not have to be physically threatened on the sidewalk by frustrated and inebriated students (which has happened) because the conflict can be moderated and mitigated by an institution designed to do just that. SNAP works…it has made this community better by dialing down the tensions. It has protected students from far more egregious consequences for their actions and certainly stopped numerous criminal actions just by existing.

Perspective makes a world of difference. We all live in a wonderful neighborhood. Because we are at different parts of life, with different schedules and demands upon us…tension will exist. Things are better than they were, if you have a long memory. Hopefully, one day they will be better than they are…but I am not sure going backwards and neutering one of the instruments that has served the University and the community to improve the dynamic will accomplish that end. Ultimately, if you don’t have the perspective to understand how much neighborliness has been fostered by SNAP as it exists, if all you see is a tiny part (your experience) then you miss the bigger picture.



You’ve just proved our point。