Dorm rooms in Holly and Kosove Apartments were slated to make USF the first university in the state to offer coed housing, with a pilot program in spring 2012.
But now, Dean of Students Ana Hernandez said USF never intended to begin the program in the spring, despite July reports from local media outlets including The Oracle, the St. Petersburg Times and USF News. And if coed housing ever makes its way to USF, it may raise questions about the legality of the practice.
According to a clause found in Section 798.02 of Florida statutes that defines cohabitation among members of the opposite sex as “lewd and lascivious behavior,” students living in coed dorms would be guilty of a secondary misdemeanor, punishable by law for up to $500 and 60 days in jail.
In July, former Housing Director Dorie Paine told The Oracle that housing was looking forward to offering the option to students, a venture she said could be profitable by attracting heterosexual couples to live on campus.
“There are plenty of males and females who move off campus because they can’t live together,” she said at that time. “I don’t think we’ll necessarily get 300 more people on campus, but it might mean that we see more people on campus, which is always good.”
The push for coed housing came after a student brought the issue to the attention of Housing officials. Taylor McCue said was frequently harassed by roommates on campus because McCue identifies as transgender. McCue, a senior majoring in psychology, was offered a transfer to another male dorm.
After McCue met with Housing officials over the summer, “transitioning” was added as a gender option on housing application forms, which Paine said would allow housing officials to “reach out” to transitioning individuals and try to find “sensitive” roommates for them. The initiative was supposed to precede the gender-neutral housing pilot program for all students.
Individuals who indicated they were transitioning would be given the options of living in single rooms reserved for special circumstances or with anyone who mutually agrees to share a room with them.
The language of the Florida statute that prevents a “man” and a “woman” from living together would allow transgender individuals to cohabitate with individuals sharing the same gender identity as them, but not necessarily biological sex.
Paine, now director of student success and mentoring, said to The Oracle on Wednesday that Housing always intended to launch the program in fall 2012, which Hernandez said USF is “in the process of exploring as a possible alternative.”
“The intent was never to introduce a gender-neutral housing option in the spring semester,” Hernandez said. “It would be that we would be potentially launching the pilot program, which is when we would open up our applications for our returning students to apply to return for next fall. So, the intent of the pilot program was always going to be to introduce it for occupancy in the fall, but the application process in the spring, so that may have been part of that confusion point.”
Hernandez said much has to be done before the pilot options can be considered.
“We’re exploring some logistical questions and trying to figure out if the program is going to be feasible for us,” she said. “There are a number of factors we need to explore before launching a pilot program.”
Hernandez said she was “not interested in commenting on” what those factors are but said the legality issue is “certainly something (Housing) would be looking into.”
Despite the efforts of some state legislators, the legality of coed housing will not change by the fall semester.
In September, Rep. Ritch Workman, R-District 30, proposed a bill for the second time that would makes cohabitation in Florida legal. Workman’s bill was not heard either time it was proposed, as he could not find a Senate sponsor.
On the 2010 census, 544, 907 Florida residents listed themselves as living with an unmarried partner.
“That’s (almost) 550,000 criminals,” Workman said. “The only reason I want to repeal these laws is because they are unenforced and unenforceable. Laws that are in the books have the potential to steal your liberty and freedom.”
Yet, Workman, said as a parent and strong conservative, he’s not a big fan of the idea of cohabitation. He said he doesn’t plan to propose the change again until he finds a senator in support of the bill.
“I really don’t care one way or another about cohabitation,” he said. “Morals are taught at home or in church, not by (USF) or any school, for that matter. That’s up to you and your God and your family – whatever you set your barometer as.”
Workman, who went Appalachian State University that offered coed housing, said he would not want his child to live in a coed dorm.
“I would do whatever I could do to prevent my daughter from staying in a cohabitated dorm, including taking away her cell phone or whatever it takes to convince me,” he said. “I’m not a big fan, but it shouldn’t be illegal. I’ll teach my daughter her morals.”
The law has not stopped students of opposite sexes from living together off campus, where many turn a blind eye to the issue.
An employee of On50 apartments, an apartment complex popular with USF students, said the complex, like others, uses individual leases to get around the statute, leaving students responsible for their own living arrangements. The employee spoke under condition of anonymity so as to not speak for the company.
Hernandez said Housing would know by spring “whether (the pilot program for fall) was going to be moving forward or not.”