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Tales from the crypt: Roommates from hell

By Andrew J. Pulskamp

With all the wonders and excitement that college life offers, it also brings with it something else that isn't always quite as appealing - roommates. Grime encrusted dishes, blaring music, buzz-saw snoring, annoying boyfriends and girlfriends; it can all make for an intolerable four years. Everybody has a collection of roommate horror stories but sometimes the no-good, sloppy roommate from those tales can be the least of one's worries. Especially when roommates get violent.

Kortney Wilson is a junior at the University of Texas at Austin. Though she's had her difficulties sharing rooms, she has never engaged in roommate fisticuffs, but that doesn't mean she's completely unfamiliar with them. Someone she knows recently became embroiled in a roomie brawl.

Poll Results

Have you ever had a roommate whom you could not get along with?

Has your roommate ever gotten violent with you during an argument?

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"I had a friend who got into a fight with a roommate and now they're going to go to court over it. They didn't know each other really well and one day they just got into it," she says.

George Long, a student at the University of Maryland, is also aware of roommate violence incidences at his school. In particular, he knows of a group of students who attacked one of their housemates almost regularly. Long explains, "I know [they] would break into their roommate's room and mess with his stuff and antagonize him. If he came out to stand up for himself, he would be subsequently beaten."

As to why these students behaved so violently Long says, "It was just personal differences. They didn't like him. They thought he wasn't quote unquote cool. They thought he was a loser and they were just looking for trouble."

We conducted a recent poll to find out just how common roommate violence is on the college scene. First we asked respondents if they ever had a roommate with whom they could not get along - 76.7 percent of those responding said yes. Then we asked if they ever had a roommate who had gotten violent during an argument - 30 percent said yes.

Times have changed on college campuses as they have everywhere else. As violence increases in society, so it does in academia. James Robson is the assistant director of residence life at Rutgers University. He acknowledges that nowadays there are potentially volatile situations that can develop between roommates. "A lot of students come in with a lot of baggage today. There's emotional issues, family issues, psychological issues. The problems can get pretty intense."

"I had a friend who got into a fight with a roommate and now they're going to go to court over it."

University of Texas at Austin junior

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One reason problems get so intense today has to do with the fact that compared to students 20 years ago, this crop of scholars isn't as accustomed to sharing. Most have never had to share a room until college. The whole roommate concept comes as a completely new experience and requires the learning of new habits.

"I would be pretty positive in saying that the majority of incoming freshmen do not have any background of sharing rooms. When you think about it, houses are getting bigger and families are getting smaller. The majority [of students] are not used to sharing," says Robson.

Sharing may be a big issue when it comes to domestic conflicts, but so is the simple concept of scheduling. Robson says, "A lot of conflicts come up with scheduling. ...Some students get up early and some are going to sleep in. If there is a difference there, it can make trouble."

There's another aspect to roommate violence that is also a sign of the times.

There are more students entering college today who are on medication than ever before. Individuals with schizophrenia or other psychological disorders don't have to disclose such conditions to universities. These situations don't always lend themselves well to cohabitation.

"Some students that come in are bipolar. And that's tough if you're a roommate. If one roommate is having psychological issues, the college can't ask questions about that. And then we don't find out about it 'til it's becoming a problem," explains Robson.

Most schools try to avoid initial roommate clashes by having would-be roomies fill out the ubiquitous roommate questionnaire. These tests try to gauge habits and personality, but often the results are vague and therefore not especially informative.

"I know [they] would break into their roommate's room and mess with his stuff and antagonize him. If he came out to stand up for himself he would be subsequently beaten."

University of Maryland student

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Wilson, from the University of Texas, says she feels that these questionnaires aren't even taken into account when universities are pairing up roommates. In her opinion, other factors take precedence. As a result, her freshman year, though not violent, was unpleasant. "I'm an African American and I was paired with another African American," Wilson says. "I think that's why we got put together, but we were just completely different. It was the worst year of my life. ...We went to bed at different times, got up at different times, listened to different music, one was messy, one was neat. Basically, anything you could think of, we were total opposites."

Violence in the dorm can be dealt with quickly. Students who mistreat someone will be kicked out ex post facto.

The stakes are higher off campus. Violent situations there may have to be dealt with in the courts since aggressive roommates may not be willing to leave. Going to court means backing your case up with proof. "When it's just one word against somebody else's that can be tricky," says Dianne Urban, an attorney with student legal services at Kansas State University. "You'll have to back your case up with evidence. If police have ever been called, then that would come in handy. I think it's very important that people call the police if they feel threatened," she says.

"A lot of students come in with a lot of baggage today. There's emotional issues, family issues, psychological issues. The problems can get pretty intense."

Rutgers University assistant director of residence life

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Roommates who are kicked out via the courts may still be held to the terms of the lease they signed, but that doesn't mean the offending party is actually going to pay rent. This situation can leave a struggling undergrad high and dry.

"I don't know exactly how it would work out in court, but the remaining roommate, if they can't come up with rent, the landlord could evict them. It's not very likely, it might be more likely that it would end up in small claims court," says Urban.

Most students aren't going to show up on the first day of school and find a new best friend as their college roomie, and most won't ever end up on the wrong end of a flying fist. In order to stay in the majority, Robson suggests students consider a couple of things. "Communication is the key. Everyone comes in with assumptions about what college is like. They assume the other person is going to have the same needs that they have, but that's not the case. You don't have to like each other, just respect each other."


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