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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Cal-Berkeley co-op changing after lawsuit

Published: March 14, 2014
Section: News

Cloyne Court, the nation’s largest cooperative student house is set to be rebranded and revamped 68 years after it was first purchased by the Berkeley Student Cooperative (BSC) at the University of California, Berkeley.

The plan to alter the residential structure comes four years after John Gibson, a former resident of the co-op, sustained serious brain damage from a drug overdose that occurred in his Cloyne Court dorm room. Gibson, a peace and conflict studies major sustained an anoxic brain injury on March 18, 2010 after ingesting a mixture of cocaine and marijuana with his roommate. The roommate was uninjured. Students found Gibson with bluish lips in a coma and waited two hours before contacting emergency services. Gibson must be cared for round the clock by nurses. His care is estimated to cost $500,000 per year.

A lawsuit was subsequently filed by Gibson’s mother, Madelyn Bennett in Alameda County Superior Court, alleging that the culture of the co-op and Cloyne created an unsafe environment for students in which administrators were aware of constant drug trafficking and drug abuse.

Bennett’s lawyer, Charles Kelly II, stated in the legal complaint that “the defendants’ failure to take any action created a ‘wild-west’ environment at Cloyne where residents believed that ‘anything goes’ and there would be no accountability for illegal drug trafficking or abuse.”

The suit was settled out of court by BSC’s insurance carrier, but their insurance rates have gone up, and BSC President Michelle Nacouzi believes that if another incident were to occur, insurance rates would be too high for the cooperative to maintain affordable housing for students. The suit also claims that the school failed to provide adequate supervision or drug-use education, instituted policies that discouraged students from contacting emergency services and did not have an on-site non-student property manager. The latter of these issues was mended after the suit as Cloyne hired a non-student to manage the team of student managers.

A decision was made by BSC to change the house so as to minimize the chances of insurance rates rising any further. They would evict all 149 current house members before fall, and designate Cloyne a substance-free zone with an academic theme. As written in The Huffington Post, this would be “in effect, pressing a reset button to Cloyne culture and community.” Students believe that the BSC should be taking steps to prevent drug abuse but think that they are going about it in the wrong way.

House Manager Mirit Friedman said that the proposed fix is only a “band-aid solution to a larger drug-culture problem,” as reported by The Daily Californian.

Further opposition stems from the recent popularity of Cloyne for its position as one of the cheapest housing options. The Daily Californian reports that Cloyne costs $2,250 per semester in an area where rent prices have been rising.

“My parents don’t have a lot of money. The only reason that I’m here is because I was blessed with a scholarship. I was blessed with this place,” says resident Amber Mullaney in one of the testimonials on the Save Cloyne webpage.

The cost includes many amenities such as a hot tub, sauna, billiard and ping-pong tables, arcade system, four square court, courtyard, greenhouse, gazebo, deck, study room, darkroom, basketball court, 24-hour kitchen and its well-known mural-covered walls.

The BSC was founded in 1933 to provide affordable living to all students during a time when African-American students were discriminated against when searching for housing near the Berkeley campus. The popularity of Cloyne for its price has already seen a change in the house’s culture. Despite the house’s reputation, students report that it is much different than it was in past decades when students embezzled funds to buy illegal drugs, had drug parties and ran meth labs in the basement.

“The house wasn’t even at full occupancy until rent control was lifted. Ever since then, we get more people that live here because they have to rather than want to. Every year the house gets tamer as more people who don’t want to live here move in,” said sixth-semester resident Erik Innocent to The Daily Californian.

The BSC’s proposed plan would allow evicted students to move into other housing provided by BSC. BSC oversees 20 democratically run Berkeley properties, totaling 1,300 residents. It would also reduce the number of residents of Cloyne by 10 and create a new study room. BSC has received $400,000 from an anonymous donation, half of which would be used to alter the building into an academic house and the other half to seismically retrofit BSC houses.

Cloyne residents, better known as Clones, object to the lack of involvement that Clones were offered in the decision making process. They are rallying to save their historic residence that is on the National Register of Historic Places and a Berkeley city landmark. They have set up a Facebook page promoting a “Save Cloyne” campaign and have their own webpage full of positive testimonials by current and former residents. Students have proposed counter proposals that aim to improve the co-op’s public image and deal head-on with substance abuse issues through education and counseling. Clones have effectively stalled BSC’s decision.

Cloyne representatives and the BSC Cabinet will meet Mar. 13 before making any decisions in the following weeks.