Last year, when WW visited Renn Fayre at Reed College, students snorted coke and ketamine off an enormous mirror in a room dubbed the "White Lodge" (see "Revisiting Renn Fayre," May 13, 2009).
This year, with students on alert that undercover police would be in the crowd, cops report a very different scene. Police made no arrests at the three-day festival, which gained notoriety for hosting open use of hard drugs and psychedelics on the school's Southeast Portland campus.
"I'm sure there was drug use on campus, but from the undercover and uniformed reports I've received, there was a significant difference this year," says Norm Frink, a chief deputy district attorney for Multnomah County. "Things appeared to be under control, and the Reed security people worked well with us."
Drug use at Reed moved into the spotlight again on April 23, when college President Colin Diver told the campus about a meeting with U.S. Attorney Dwight Holton and county District Attorney Mike Schrunk. In a campuswide email, Diver said Holton and Schrunk delivered a "forceful and direct" message to "shut down" drug use at Reed or face possible consequences.
Others at the meeting report that's not quite what happened—saying the atmosphere remained friendly, and no threats were made about cutting Reed's funding. More on that in a bit.
Reed denied our request to attend Renn Fayre. But the fact that police reported no drug problems at the college's annual end-of-school celebration indicates change may finally be coming to a private school long famous for student drug use (see "Higher Ed," WW, May 14, 2008).
The crackdown was prompted by the second heroin-overdose death in two years among the school's 1,400 students. Alejandro Lluch, a freshman, died in his dorm room in 2008. Sam Tepper, a senior physics major, was found dead March 22 in his off-campus apartment. Law-enforcement officials hope the death will spur the campus to take decisive action.
But doubters remain. One is Naomi Tepper, Sam's older sister. She's grieving for the sibling she also calls her best friend.
"My mom cries all the time, my dad's holding it in, but the whole family's torn apart," says Tepper, a 34-year-old marketing agent in Brooklyn. "He made his own decisions in life, but at the same time, the school made it acceptable."
Given what she witnessed when she visited her brother at Reed in 2007, Tepper believes the students don't want to change—and the administration is powerless over them.
Tepper says when she saw students openly smoking pot in front of campus security, her brother told her security doesn't care—and that cafeteria workers sell students coke and designer drugs. Tepper says according to her brother, students feel they have full power over the administration.
Diver declined to comment for this story. He's previously told WW the school is carrying out a years-long effort to revamp its drug policy. That includes a new plan that has seen campus administration calling the police on students (see "Busted at Reed," WW, Sept. 2, 2009).
Most recently, Reed spokesman Kevin Myers confirms that on March 3, Reed called the cops on Camilla Muldrow. In her dorm room, according to court records, police found 24 grams of cocaine and a bag labeled "Renn Fayre" containing ketamine, 2CB, hash, opium and ecstasy. She pleaded not guilty; no trial date is set.
As Renn Fayre approached, Holton called Diver to a meeting April 22 at the federal courthouse. Also present were Schrunk, two other top prosecutors, and Mike Brody, Reed's dean of students.
Schrunk and Holton say no threats were made about yanking Reed's funding, although they mentioned laws against running a drug house. They urged Diver to use Renn Fayre as an opportunity.
"I don't think it was confrontational," Schrunk says. "It was more, how can we help you?"
Diver spent the night thinking it over. The next day, he called Holton and said he was ready to accept their offer. Schrunk says he understands why Diver may have described the exchange to students differently.
"Put yourself in [the administration's] position. They have a different group to play to. So they're going to say, 'Oh, big bad prosecutors,' " Schrunk says. "Maybe out of the other side of their mouth, they're saying they don't believe [the campus has a problem]. But I think they do believe it."
Others remain skeptical. Mike Fisher of the Eastmoreland Neighborhood Association hopes the crackdown helps the college in his neighborhood. But he doubts Reed's will to change.
"They're not really helping their students move into the real world," Fisher says. "It's more of a fantasy land."
The National Republican Congressional Committee is circulating a news release criticizing Reed board member Suzan DelBene, a Bellevue, Wash., high-tech executive, for her ties to the school, citing reports of drug use by students. DelBene is a Democratic candidate to replace U.S. Rep. Dave Reichert (R-Wash.).