Shoplifting By Harvard Students Rises; Ad Board May Reconsider Punishments
Six times as many Harvard students have been picked up for shoplifting at the Coop this fall as were picked up in a comparable period last year, while shoplifting for non-students has risen only slightly. As a result. Harvard's Administrative Board is seriously reconsidering its method of handling petty theft by students.
The off-duty Cambridge policemen who work as security guards in the Coop caught 21 Harvard and Radcliffe Undergraduates and nine graduate students shoplifting this September and October, as compared with three undergraduates and two graduates last year, according to Al Zavelle, Coop Acting General Manager. The number of nonstudents apprehended rose from 32 to 38 in the same period.
Under an informal arrangement which has been in effect for over 40 years, the Coop turns the names of Harvard students caught shoplifting over to the Dean of Students, Robert B. Watson '37. The student is not booked by the police. Instead, Harvard handles the offense as an internal affair, judged in the light of the student's previous record at Harvard.
Zavelle said he could offer no certain explanation for the rise in thefts among students. "Some of these students complain they don't feel like waiting in line, or they say that the Coop overprices and they're getting their 'fair share,' "Zavelle said.
Strike Losses High
"We accept the fact that a large part of the student body feels that we're part of the establishment that they are fighting," he added. Zavelle noted that the biggest monthly jump in student shoplifting came between April and May of last spring, at the time of the student strike at Harvard.
Zavelle emphasized that the overall "shrinkage rate" for the Coop-the percentage of inventory accounted lost through customer theft, employee theft, mispricing, and accounting errors-is less than two per cent, while the rates both for Boston department stores and for department stores nationally are closer to three per cent. He estimated that the Coop loses about $80,000 a year, or one-half of one per cent of sales, through customer theft.
A Harvard Senior Tutor expressed concern that the nature of the shoplifters has changed. In past years, he said, they had usually been students with academic or family problems who seemed to be "calling out for help." This year, some students have explained their shoplifting by saying they "had heard the Coop was an 'easy mark,'" he said.
Archie C. Epps, assistant dean of the College and acting chairman of the Ad Board, declined comment on the problem. But he said that the Board will take up the questions of shoplifting and of the University's in loco parentis relationship to shoplifters at its meeting on November 25.
Until about five years ago, a student caught shoplifting would be automatic-ally severed by the University, but recently cases have been handled more leniently. According to one senior tutor, a student was severed this year for a combination of shoplifting and previous offenses, but often the punishment for a first offense is some kind of probation.
Members of the Ad Board said the disciplinary body will probably reconsider the penalties for shoplifting at the November 25 meeting.
The Coop usually has three security guards, one uniformed and two in plain clothes, on duty. According to Zavelle, when one of these guards sees a suspected shoplifter, he keeps him under surveillance and, because the shoplifter law is a question of intent to steal, usually does not stop the offender until he has passed an area where he should have paid for the merchandise he has taken.
The guard, an off-duty policeman, then takes the suspect to an office on the second floor of the Coop where, with no one else present, he interrogates him and asks him to sign a form which says in part, "When I took the above property, I did so with the intent to appropriate it to my own use, without intending to pay for it. . I make this admission after having been advised that I need make no statement." After the suspect has agreed to sign the statement, the guard brings in an officer of the Coop to witness it.
Zavelle said that the verbal interrogation is usually "terrifying" for the shoplifter. After repeated questioning, students often admit that they have stolen other items from the Coop. With the student's permission or with a search warrant, a Coop official sometimes goes on to search an offending student's room.
In at least one case this year, according to Zavelle and two senior tutors, a student signed the statement of intent to steal and later denied that he had intended to shoplift. The student said he had forgotten to pay for the goods in question, and confessed because he had been emotionally upset and afraid that he would not be allowed to leave the room until he had signed the form.
Zavelle defended the interrogation and the form, which he said is standard for department stores. The Coop has no other way of defending itself from charges of false arrest, he said.
Deans Get Student Names
It a non-student refuses to sign the form, he is immediately turned over to the police. Students who refuse to sign may still not be arrested, but will usually only have their names turned over to a dean, just as if they had signed.
If an offender signs the Coop's statement, Zavelle conceded, the Coop is still legally obliged to book him at a police station. However, in the case of Harvard and M. I. T. students, the Coop turns the confession forms over to a dean.
In the case of juveniles, the Coop contacts the suspect's parents. Other shoplifters, including B. U. students, are booked in Cambridge and their statements are filed with the police.
Ad Board Undecided
Because present draft laws make severing a procedure often less lenient than that which might be meted out by a Cambridge court, and because Harvard's in loco parentis role is under fire on many fronts, some members of the Ad Board favor turning shoplifters over to civil authorities. Others say that most shoplifters are students in need of help who should not be made subject to a possible criminal record.
Zavelle said that if Harvard wants to terminate its arrangement with the Coop, the store will turn students caught shoplifting over to civil authorities. But he added that the Coop "considers itself a part of the Harvard community," and will be happy to continue to cooperate with the Administrative Board.