round 7:30 a.m. on Sunday, February 22nd, Zachary Kramer, a sophomore at Wesleyan University, realized his classmate Abhimanyu Janamanchi had stopped breathing. The night before, Janamanchi had been at a party at the Eclectic Society, a kind of alternative anti-fraternity on campus, where New York DJs called Swim Team performed. “Come to eclectic this Saturday night to experience their phresh club workouts,” a freshman had advertised on a student blog, promising beats “spanning the realm of dance musics from leftfield juke to jersey bangers.” Jungle juice came around, students packed the sweltering dance floor and shortly after midnight Janamanchi started to feel unwell. He called Kramer to come pick him up. A student at the party later told police that Janamanchi was “having trouble walking.”
Kramer helped Janamanchi to the dorms on Foss Hill, the sloping central green around which the Middletown, Connecticut campus is built, and gave him water and Triscuit crackers. Eventually, Janamanchi fell asleep on a mattress on the floor of a friend’s room. Kramer, a neuroscience major with his sights set on medical school, stayed close throughout the night. Five hours later, Janamanchi shot up from his mattress to take a gasp of air, then collapsed back down. Kramer failed to find a pulse, and called 911. The dispatcher stayed on the phone while Kramer administered about 150 chest compressions. When paramedics arrived, they found Janamanchi unresponsive, administered six defibrillator shocks and intubated him on the way to Middlesex Hospital. The Middletown Police Department, an agency affidavit notes, sent officers “to a medical/overdose with a possible untimely death.”
Similar scenes appeared to be unfolding around the college. Kramer’s call was the first of a series to which the Middletown Fire Department responded over a six-hour period that Sunday; its staff made seven trips in all to student residences. Janamanchi and another critically ill student were airlifted to Hartford Hospital. Middletown Fire Chief Robert Kronenberger, who has worked in the department for 25 years, had never experienced such a severe situation at the school. “We don’t really have a big problem with Wesleyan,” he says. “So when we had that many patients in such a short time we put two and two together pretty rapidly.”
At least one of the students hospitalized offered a Middletown police detective an explanation for the rash of emergencies: a bag of white powder split with two others on Saturday night.
As the number of hospitalizations mounted that Sunday, Wesleyan’s vice president for student affairs, Michael Whaley, known affectionately as Dean Mike, sent two campus-wide e-mails announcing that a number of students had been transported to the hospital for what appeared to be overdoses of MDMA (also known as Ecstasy or Molly). The drug can cause severe increases in body temperature, which can lead in turn to sudden failure of the liver, kidney or heart. The administration feared that students across campus, many in single rooms, might be overheating in their beds. Whaley wrote, “First, and most importantly, please check in with your friends immediately to make sure that they are okay. Do this right now!”
Twelve people were ultimately hospitalized — ten Wesleyan students and two guests. Each was soon released but one: Janamanchi, who remained in critical condition at Hartford Hospital throughout the next week. On Monday, Wesleyan’s president, Michael Roth, sent an e-mail to the student body describing “complications arising from the use of a version of the drug Molly, a refined and more powerful form of Ecstasy (MDMA).” Roth urged students, “If you are aware of people distributing these substances, please let someone know.”
Some Wesleyan students found Roth’s statements “problematic.” The electronic-music public-health organization DanceSafe published a blog post stressing that students may not have overdosed on MDMA, but rather fallen victim to tainted drugs; the preferred reference to the incident on campus became “poisonings” instead of “overdoses.” A senior wrote to Dean Whaley that asking students to turn each other in amounted to “coerced divulgement of information from emotionally and physically traumatized students in a moment of crisis.”
The next day, the Middletown Police Department arrested four students: Eric Lonergan, Rama Agha Al Nakib, Andrew Olson and Zachary Kramer. As an act of solidarity, the campus newspaper, the Wesleyan Argus, refused to identify them, but their names and photographs were plastered on the front page of the Hartford Courant, and printed in a number of mainstream outlets including the New York Times and the Daily Mail.
Many Wesleyan graduates work in entertainment, music, sports, politics, and publishing: The so-called “Wesleyan mafia” includes Matthew Weiner, Joss Whedon, Michael Bay, Amanda Palmer, Santigold, MGMT, Bill Belichick, the governor of Colorado, John Hickenlooper and the editor of the New York Times Magazine, Jake Silverstein. For alumni, the media’s rush to cover the hospitalizations might have been unsurprising, even though the same incident could have happened at any number of schools. For current students, it was an outrage. As Wesleyan’s neatly groomed 300 acres filled with news vans, students banded together to shut out the press.
“If you see reporters on campus, do not speak to them,” one well-liked student wrote on Facebook the day of the hospitalizations. “You’re not helping anyone.”
“Just saw all the news trucks,” another wrote that Monday. “Please, please don’t talk to reporters. Let our loved ones heal in peace.”
To distinguish itself from the hustling pre-professional mindset often associated with the Ivies, Wesleyan, like other elite liberal arts colleges, promises its students a space of exploration and personal autonomy. As a Wesleyan freshman, in 2004, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the campus gynecologist’s intake form asked which gender pronoun I wished to identify by. The 2015 orientation guidebook tells all incoming students, “You have chosen to become part of a vibrant community, one that will encourage your personal growth.” As William Holder, Wesleyan’s Director of Communications, tells me, “The Wesleyan community values creativity, independence of mind and generosity of spirit, and these do not thrive in over-regulated environments.”
Of course, encouraging a culture of personal experimentation is not always compatible with the age limits (and legal liabilities) present at a residential college. In the wake of the hospitalizations, law enforcement, with help from the university, launched a speedy investigation. When students learned the extent of the school’s cooperation, many felt rattled, even hurt. It was bad enough to know classmates and friends were suffering in hospital beds; for many, it was worse still to see their peers arrested on charges of drug dealing, and promptly dismissed from the school. How could a university ostensibly dedicated to fostering personal growth suddenly crack down?
In late May, at the start of Wesleyan’s graduation weekend—where Lin-Manuel Miranda, the 2002 alumnus and MacArthur ‘Genius’ grant recipient whose “Hamilton” is currently the toast of Broadway, gave the commencement address— federal prosecutors announced the indictment of Lonergan and Kramer on five counts of selling controlled substances. Jury selection for their trial is scheduled for November 3rd.
The university is back in session for a new academic year. Last month, freshmen students enjoyed gender-bending festivities, cross-cultural dancing and Italian ices. President Roth gave the first State of the School address. But as the arrested former students prepare for their day in court — and as colleges across the country struggle with controversies over sexual assault, racism, binge-drinking and drug use — a central question looms: When students at an educational institution that prizes experimentation want to experiment with risky behavior, how liberal can a liberal-arts college be?
Long before it was lampooned for an unflinching devotion to identity politics in the 1994 cult-classic “PCU” (‘Politically Correct University’), Wesleyan had a reputation for being progressive, if nothing short of radical. Founded in 1831, under the auspices of John Wesley’s Methodist movement, Wesleyan first admitted female students in 1872. It began recruiting students of color in the 1960s. In 1968, a campus chapter of the Black Panthers formed. The following year, African-American students at Wesleyan, supported by a group of Middletown residents, held a 4 a.m. demonstration to demand a special-interest house and cultural center on campus. The former John Wesley House became Malcolm X House.
Today, campus controversies ignite over students’ right to chalk profane statements or the number and placement of gender-neutral bathrooms. Last month, a sophomore named Bryan Stascavage, a 30-year-old two-tour veteran of the Iraq War, published an op-ed suggesting that the Black Lives Matter movement contributed to violence against police. In response, a group of Wesleyan students launched a petition to defund the campus newspaper for failing “to be an inclusive representation of the voices of the student body.” Gawker’s mocking blog post about the petition called the college “the dictionary representation of ‘Stereotypical Ultraliberal Private University.'”
Wesleyan’s liberal fervor only abets its reputation as a druggy college. The first Grateful Dead concert in Connecticut is said to be one played on Foss Hill in May 1970. The arrival of spring is marked with “Zonker Harris Day,” an annual celebration of psychedelic music and drugs named after the stoner in the “Doonesbury” comics. Members of the Eclectic Society, which hosted the February DJ party in its imposing Doric-columned building, cultivate a drug-induced, ur-hipster mindset, and for years held an annual Sex Party— a bacchanal with porn on the wall and a cage in the center — until it was shut down in 2009. (As a student and attendee myself, I never witnessed any penetration.) All of which is meant to uphold the campus refrain, delivered anew by each graduating class: “Keep Wesleyan Weird.”
Among Wesleyan’s 3,100 students, few embraced this hippie-scholar ethos as fully as Eric Lonergan, a 22-year-old neuroscience major from Rio de Janeiro, who speaks Portuguese, Spanish, and German, taught Jiu-Jitsu and claimed to have founded a group called the Dialectical Coliseum of Consciousness. Lonergan often holed himself up in his room to study the work of thinkers like Timothy Leary and the American biochemist Alexander “Sasha” Shulgin, who introduced MDMA to psychologists after first testing compounds on himself, his wife and their friends. “My goal,” Lonergan wrote on his LinkedIn page, “is to integrate Neuroscience with Philosophy of Mind to create a consistent image of the universe along with revised methods for dealing with mental disorders through pharmacotherapy and psychotherapy.”
According to the federal indictment, Lonergan not only knew how to acquire mind-altering substances, he chemically tested their contents as well. He distributed literature on how to trip and fielded questions on usage. One classmate described him to me as a “sage of drugs.” When Lonergan was a sophomore, he covered the walls of his dorm room with tapestries and trippy smoke-shop posters, Pink Floyd stickers and Led Zeppelin album covers. “I like to keep my environment as psychedelic as possible,” he told a student blogger. “All the colors and patterns merging into each other help me maintain my awareness of how everything is and always will be interconnected.”
Lonergan, according to the affidavit, “began purchasing and redistributing a mixture and substance containing a detectable amount of MDMA” around November 2013. A second classmate of his wrote to me that Lonergan always seemed “invested in people having safe and meaningful drug experiences,” and that Lonergan “thought of himself as providing a service.” Another student told me that some even turned to Lonergan for advice on chemically treating psychological difficulties. Despite these efforts, however, the hospitalizations last February were not the first allegedly linked to Lonergan’s supply. (Through his lawyer, Lonergan declined to comment for this article.)
Over two consecutive weekends in September 2014, a handful of Wesleyan students were brought to the emergency room after they took what they thought was Molly. According to the indictment filed the following May, Lonergan had provided several grams “of what he represented to be Molly, in bulk, to an individual who then distributed it to students in 100 mg capsules.” Students snorted the powder or took it orally, and a number of them quickly felt lethargic and paranoid. One student, who passed out less than ten minutes after snorting the drug, stayed in her bed for two days before finally going to the hospital.
After this episode, Lonergan, according to the indictment, wrote to several students who had taken the drug and assured them that what he had sold was untainted and safe; he “even sent some of these students a link to a video purporting to show him testing the substance and yielding a positive result for the presence of MDMA.” A student who had become ill asked Lonergan about the drug on Privnote, an app used to send self-destructing messages (she later turned over copies she made of the conversation to police). Lonergan reportedly apologized for not giving better instructions, and clarified that the drug was “synthesized by a prestigious chemist upon a specific request, tested and personally ingested prior to distribution.”
Wesleyan’s health services department sent a campus-wide e-mail message, notifying students that it had posted additional background on MDMA on its website. “We hope that this information will be helpful in terms of better understanding the effects and potential side-effects,” the notice said. “As always, please visit the Davison Health Center if you have questions or concerns about a friend’s use of Molly.”
That September, the university tried to find the source of the Molly. “Some information” did develop, Dean Whaley later told members of Wesleyan’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, but the administration, according to one student’s records of the conversation, concluded that it was not “enough to act on.” Lauren Rubenstein, the university spokesperson, wrote to me, “When we’re aware of illegal drug distribution, we involve law enforcement.” While no criminal charges were made, two names seem to have emerged: Lonergan, who was suspected of being the campus’s main supplier, and Rama Agha Al Nakib, now suspected of being his distributor.
Nakib, a 20-year old who studied neuroscience and writing, speaks Arabic and French, gave tours at the campus art gallery, practiced calligraphy and populated Tumblr with arch photos of herself posing in a graveyard. She describes herself online, with elan, as a “diy designer/play-pretend graphic artist/fashion femme fatale.” She was born in Syria to a politically prominent Iraqi Muslim family; her father was assassinated when she was a baby, and her mother sought political asylum for the family in Maryland. Nakib has completed a summer course in cell biology at Oxford; designed iOS apps for the Jordanian ministry of tourism; and given a TedxYouth talk in Amman on educational reform in the Middle East. She earned a full scholarship to Wesleyan.
While Nakib, chatty and mellow, held court on Foss Hill, Lonergan was a less sociable presence on campus. He had a small but tight circle of friends, students with whom he would discuss the video game Psychonauts, states of being and books. With Nakib, Lonergan talked about romantic mysticism and progressive rock music, and joked about laxatives being put into the food at the vegan café. They shared an international sensibility, and an interest in how the physical constitution of the human brain gives rise to the mind. In time, she grew closer to Lonergan than anyone else at Wesleyan. He called their friendship “the vortex” because of its ability to sustain itself when no one else was around.
In February, the student who had exchanged Privnote messages with Lonergan after falling ill in September came forward to Wesleyan Public Safety, the school’s private security force. She ultimately gave Middletown Police Detective Kurt Scrivo a capsule she said she had purchased from Nakib in September. Its contents later tested positive for an analogue of MDMA and AB Fubinaca, a Schedule-I synthetic cannabinoid sometimes found in products like K2 and Spice. According to the affidavit, the student told police that Nakib and Lonergan worked together “to produce and sell the Molly.”
Middletown police had apparently learned as much a few weeks before the February hospitalizations. “Prior to this incident,” Scrivo writes in the affidavit, “Middletown Police received information from a Wesleyan Public Safety officer who obtained information from a former student indicating that Rama Al Nakib and Eric Lonergan are two students known to be dealing drugs on campus.” The university had not taken disciplinary action against Lonergan and Nakib, but Wesleyan Public Safety Lieutenant Frederick West now told Scrivo that Dean Whaley had authorized his department to search “a number of students rooms on campus”—including Lonergan’s and Nakib’s—”due to the recent medical emergencies.”
On Tuesday, February 24th, Wesleyan Public Safety officers Paul Verrillo and Tom Harrington went to search Lonergan’s room at Buddhist House, a dorm devoted to the practice and study of Buddhism. Lonergan asked if they had a warrant. “He was told,” the affidavit states, “that they did not but had the permission of Vice President Whaley.” Detectives seized more than 500 pills; a pharmacist identified 16 prescription medications, among the various powders and liquids. The prosecutor Eugene Calistro Jr. said that Lonergan had “essentially a drugstore” in his room.
Around the same time, Public Safety Lieutenant West, accompanied by Detective Scrivo and two other Middletown detectives, knocked on the door of Nakib’s room in her house on Warren Street. She wasn’t home, but the door budged open. According to the affidavit, West spotted — in plain view — a rolled-up dollar bill beside white powder. He also found a scale and empty pill capsules. In Nakib’s closet, on the left-hand side, there was a locked, black box.
West dialed headquarters to have them locate Nakib. She returned wearing a leather biker jacket and platform combat boots. In her kitchen, Nakib told the officers that she had heard about the hospitalizations, but said that whatever drugs had been taken had nothing to do with her. She had been home all night. Go ahead up to my room, Nakib said. West told her that he’d already searched it and found the black box.
Nakib let him open it. Its contents revealed multiple powders labeled with chemical compound abbreviations, which a Connecticut laboratory determined contained Hallucinogenic Tryptamine, and 610 pills of Xanax that Nakib said were for a panic disorder. When the detective asked if she was aware that this was a prescription drug, she said “she does not believe in the American Medical System and does not feel that she should be forced to see a doctor each time she is in need of her medication.”
Nakib emphatically denied any involvement in the hospitalizations that weekend. But she said a friend who was dating her housemate “came home puking and hallucinating.” And she knew where the friend had bought the drug: from a campus dealer who had, according to a text message conversation she provided, gone back to a “shitty old source” in Washington, D.C. after losing a previous supplier. The “bad molly,” Nakib told the police, was from Zac Kramer.
Colleges and universities routinely struggle with the difficult decision of when to involve police,” says Wesleyan’s spokesperson, Lauren Rubenstein. “Wesleyan endeavors to do so where it believes it is necessary to protect the health and safety of its community members.” No arrests had been made after the hospitalizations in September, but the February situation appeared more critical. “The events of February 21-22 were highly unusual for Wesleyan,” Rubenstein says. “We cooperated fully with law enforcement throughout.” Almost immediately, Middletown police worked to gather information from those hospitalized.
One of the students they spoke to was Sarah, a junior biology major who asked that I withhold her last name. Sarah says that, among her high school friends, she was “always the designated driver.” Before Wesleyan, she had tried marijuana, but never anything harder. “I didn’t really feel I was old enough or mature enough to do them in high school,” she says. But when she got to Wesleyan, she met people who had taken harder drugs. “The environment was much more comfortable to try it,” she tells me. In her sophomore year, she slowed down, but that February weekend, Sarah decided to roll.
She remembers it as a typical enough night—stopping by different parties, seeing different groups of friends. At about five in the morning, she began to feel extremely ill. “I started throwing up, I was pale, I had blurry vision, I was sweating, I was having chest pain,” she says. “My arm went numb.” In late morning, she was still in bed when Kramer, a close friend, came to her room and told her through tears that Janamanchi had gone to the hospital. He insisted on driving Sarah to the hospital, too. By the time she was given a room at Middlesex, several other Wesleyan students had come in. When a nurse asked if she had taken Molly, she replied that she had. “At that point,” she says, “they pumped me full of fluids through an IV.”
Not two hours later, Sarah says, two detectives came to her hospital-side. “My first reaction was to try to be as helpful as possible,” she tells me. “Then they were like, ‘Who gave it to you?’ And at that point I decided to stay quiet. They were like, ‘You’re not going to tell us, you don’t know?’ And I was like, ‘I’m sorry, I can’t say anything.’ And then they were like, ‘Do you know those two boys, the boys who went to Hartford [Hospital]?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah,’ because they were some of my good friends. And they were like, ‘Well, if they die, their blood is on your hands.'”
Sarah was discharged on Monday morning. Around 10:30 p.m. that evening, a Middletown police detective and a Wesleyan Public Safety officer came to her dorm, brought her to the Public Safety headquarters, and sat her in a room with a detective (not the same detective who had been at the hospital). “She starts the conversation with,” Sarah says, “‘Look, we’re prosecuting anyone that doesn’t cooperate.'”
Law enforcement had begun to develop a picture of what might have occurred Saturday night: Zachary Kramer, with the help of distributors, supplied the drugs that caused the hospitalizations. When the police detective scribbled down a statement for Sarah to sign, she stepped away to call her parents. Sarah is first-generation American; neither of her parents attended high school or college in the United States. The entire ordeal, she says, “was so foreign to them that they were just completely shocked for a very long time, and very disappointed.” She told her father that a detective was encouraging her to sign a statement she had not written, and that she didn’t think she should sign. “‘Don’t say another word,'” he told her. She went back to the room and told the detective, “I need a lawyer.”
Sarah says the detective grew visibly upset. (Lieutenant Heather Desmond of the Middletown Police Department declined to comment.) “She was like, ‘We’re going to issue the arrest warrants tonight,'” Sarah says. “And I was like, ‘It’s midnight, where are you going to find a judge who’s going to issue the arrest warrant for something that I haven’t even really done?'”
In the days after the hospitalizations, the campus was seized by fear, worry and innuendo. Above all, one student told me, the vibe was to “protect everyone.” In this fragile mood, President Roth’s approach felt to many students like a witch-hunt. Students urged each other: “Don’t snitch.”
At Hartford Hospital, Janamanchi was kept in a medically induced coma. He had taken two pills, while some of the hospitalized students had shared the powder of one pill among three people. His chances of survival were uncertain. His family limited visitors to a few close friends, including Kramer, the friend who seemingly saved Janamanchi’s life. According to the indictment, Kramer met “with at least one of his distributors and directed him not to speak to the police.” But his attempt to orchestrate a cover-up made little difference. When Kramer came to visit Janamanchi at the hospital on Tuesday, Middletown police arrested him.
Zachary Kramer, 21, was an ambitious high-achiever. He maintained a 4.0 grade-point average while staying on pace to graduate in three years. “He could really articulate complex goings-on of the brain and the mind and even of the psyche,” Jake Lahut, a junior, tells me. Kramer sang in an a cappella group, worked at a nonprofit to help support businesses in Middletown and won a SLAM poetry competition. He took part in campus discussions on divestment from fossil-fuel equities — earning a descriptor as the event’s “foremost pragmatist” — and signed a student call to take “meaningful and effective action to combat campus sexual assault.” His LinkedIn profile noted that he had interned at Merrill Lynch, in the global wealth management division, and at the Food and Drug Administration. (Through his lawyer, Kramer declined to comment for this article.)
According to the indictment, Kramer began selling Molly over the summer of 2014. At least some of his supply allegedly came from Lonergan. In the months after the September incident, however, Kramer is thought to have become the chief supplier of Molly on campus. The indictment claims that Kramer returned to campus after winter break, in January 2015, “with at least 25 grams of Molly”— which was initially worth about $5,000 — and that all of the students hospitalized in February “obtained the purported Molly through individual distributers who were supplied directly by Kramer” — not Lonergan.
In Kramer’s dorm room, detectives found 197 nitrous oxide cartridges, 19 capsules with a tan substance that tested positive for amphetamines in a container marked “Alpha Brain,” two bags with “an unknown amount of multicolor balloons,” 0.2 grams of marijuana, one package of rolling papers and a scale. He is accused of destroying his supply of the purported MDMA, but one of his distributors seemingly did not. Analysis by a toxicology lab discovered the powder in the capsules did not contain MDMA at all, but the synthetic cannabinoid AB Fubinaca.
In the 1990s, according to Roy Gerona, a clinical toxicologist at the University of California, San Francisco, Molly was mostly as advertised: a pure form of MDMA. In the last five years, he says, the party drug was often cut or entirely replaced with synthetic cathinones commonly referred to as bath salts, which at least mimicked the stimulant qualities of MDMA. Most recently, however, experts have begun to see a rise in synthetic cannabinoids like AB Fubinaca sold as Molly. In many ways, these substances induce all the worst sensations of marijuana’s psychoactive ingredient, THC: rapid heartbeat, lethargy and intense paranoia, but with perhaps ten times the potency. “No one knows for sure what can come from taking or experimenting with these new drugs,” Gerona says. “It’s anybody’s guess.”
One of Kramer’s distributors was arrested Tuesday as well. A hospitalized student, referred to as Victim 2 in the warrant, told a lieutenant that “she and a friend purchased a bag of white powder from Andrew Olson.” Police officers were already in his room at Malcolm X House when he tried to enter that afternoon. A 20-year-old neuroscience student who helped relaunch Wesleyan’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, Olson was “visibly shaken” and repeatedly said, “I am done with this stuff.” Officers said they found a hallucinogenic drug — a “white powdery rock like substance” — which turned out to be an analogue of Foxy Methoxy. According to the affidavit, when officers told him that one of the students hospitalized was in critical condition, Olson began to cry. (Through his lawyer, Olson declined to comment for this article.)
On Friday, six days after the Eclectic party, Janamanchi’s family released a statement. “Thankfully, against all odds, our child will survive this terrible ordeal,” they wrote. The statement went on, “We would also like to express our deepest gratitude to the Wesleyan community — the administrators, faculty, and students — for their concern and support. And we are thankful as well for the expert work of the Middletown Police Department.”
One week later, Janamanchi turned himself in to Middletown police and was promptly arrested. According to the affidavit, detectives had collected his backpack, shoes and jacket from the dorm on Foss Hill. A bag of white powder found in his backpack tested positive for bath salts and AB-Fubinaca. He was charged with two counts each of possession and sale of a hallucinogen, one count of possession of a controlled substance and one count of possession of a controlled substance with intent to sell.
In the end, two groups that sold separate batches of apparently tainted Molly on the Wesleyan campus were swept up in a single investigation. Those allegedly responsible for the drugs that caused the rash of February hospitalizations — Kramer, Olson and Janamanchi — and those suspected of dealing drugs at other times in the school year — Lonergan and Nakib. But next month, Lonergan and Kramer face nearly identical federal charges, including conspiracy to distribute, attempted distribution of MDMA and distribution of AB Fubinaca. Each charge carries a possible prison sentence of 20 years plus a fine of up to $1 million. The most serious charge against both of them, though, carries a maximum sentence of 40 years: “distribution of MDMA within 1,000 feet of a private college.”
The balancing act between freedom and safety, and whether to adjudicate criminal matters on or off campus, has long been a matter of tension at colleges across the country. In the span of six months, Wesleyan experienced three nights of hospitalizations due to students taking what they thought was MDMA. At first, the administration tried to handle the matter on campus — as students no doubt preferred. But in February, when law enforcement was involved from the start, the school aided the investigation. Some on campus accused the university of inconsistency. But what could it have done differently in either case?
In February 2014, an Atlantic magazine cover story harshly criticized Wesleyan for its response to an accusation of rape in a fraternity. To journalist Caitlin Flanagan, it was a clear example of how a university famous for progressive politics — “manifest in any number of actions, from the hiring of five Muslim chaplains in the years since 9/11; to the use of the gender-neutral pronouns ze and hir in the campus newspaper” — can fail its students when reputation and fund-raising are on the line.
That fall, Wesleyan ordered all fraternities to become coeducational, or else shut down. It spent the subsequent academic year bringing sanctions against its small Greek community for misbehavior. The school also implemented a policy and training program called “Bystander Intervention,” designed “to train students in identifying and intervening in high-risk situations in order to prevent sexual assault, alcohol abuse, and relationship violence.”
Bystander Intervention was intended to spread responsibility for student safety among the entire campus community. In the wake of the hospitalizations, the university seemed to cast cooperation with police in the language of the new policy. A note from President Roth concluded, “Take care of yourselves. And let’s take care of each other.” And Dean Whaley sent a message touting student willingness to speak with Middletown and Wesleyan enforcement as a manifestation of community care.
Many students balked at this. “Bystander Intervention is about supporting community,” says Talia Baurer, who graduated in May. “But this is about fragmenting. These were beloved community members.” Charles Martin, now a senior, calls it “a smug move, the implication that the people who were arrested were a danger to the school.” Elijah Stevens, a senior at the time, responded to Whaley with a letter in the Argus. “Bystander intervention is about stepping up to interrupt and stop moments of potential violence,” he wrote. “It is NOT about institutional coercion, on the basis of legal and emotional threats, to incriminate and alienate specific members of the community.”
A number of people on campus argued that Wesleyan incriminated the five arrested students further by putting them through disciplinary hearings — internal proceedings without legal representation — that seemed timed for their testimony to be used against them in upcoming criminal cases. A group of students launched a petition on Change.org called “Restorative Justice for the Wesleyan Five,” which states: “We are alarmed at their arrests, and do not welcome the Drug War’s abduction of our classmates… Why does every word the University has spoken to us thus far speak only to a concern with image and respect, when lives were on the line?”
Michael Linden, a recent graduate who wrote his thesis on marijuana prohibition, hoped the events of late February would be a moment of reckoning for Wesleyan, at least in terms of drug policy. “There’s disapproving, and then there’s prioritizing safety,” Linden tells me. “An ideal drug policy wouldn’t condone or condemn, it would be neutral”—arming students with information, and even tests through which to determine what substance they considered ingesting. He calls it “harm reduction and fact-based drug education.”
When I asked some of these same students to consider the flip side—what if Janamanchi had died? — they had less to say. Everyone is sure that none of the suspects meant any harm, and yet this was not a victimless crime. (Janamanchi’s lawyer, Christian Young, says that Janamanchi is still trying to piece together what happened that night, and will be working for years to fully recover “his physical, mental, and emotional capacities.”) The spirit of Bystander Intervention aside, illegal drug sales will be criminally prosecuted. “It struck me as a little naïve,” Baurer says of student outrage over the arrests. “That’s how these things work.”
Rubenstein, the university spokesperson, suggests the drug poisonings have gotten a disproportionate amount of attention. “We routinely survey students about drug and alcohol use and consistently find self-reported MDMA/ecstasy use around 2 percent,” she says. This spring, Wesleyan hosted a series of panels on drug usage and drug chemistry, and convened a task force of students, staff members, faculty, alumni and parents, focusing on the question of “harm reduction” versus “prohibition.” A campus symposium on the issue is scheduled for November. “We encourage students to open themselves to new areas of study, experiences, people and points of view,” Rubenstein says. “[Wesleyan] is a safe and caring community, where people look out for one another.”
resident Roth, himself a Wesleyan alumnus, last year published a book called “Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters,” in which he traces the debate over liberal (as opposed to vocational) education back to the Founding Fathers. Over lunch this spring, he suggested that drug use should not necessarily be equated with personal freedoms. “When I was a student in the 1970s, I would never have expected that one day students would reject smoking in classrooms and public spaces,” he says. “Two hundred years ago, people thought dueling would never be eradicated from universities. Let’s hope that one day people will look back on dangerous drug use and drinking like we look back at smoking—and dueling!”
What remains to be seen is whether criminal prosecutions offer a way there. Deirdre Daly, the United States Attorney for the District of Connecticut, said that the federal indictment was intended to emphasize the serious dangers of drugs frequently seen as benign. “Our hope is that this prosecution puts to bed the misperception that synthetic drugs are harmless party drugs,” she said. “The growth and evolution of synthetic drugs is a serious public health concern.”
Two days after the announcement of federal charges, Wesleyan held its commencement ceremony, where Lonergan, if not for his expulsion, would have received a diploma. (He had returned to campus in April, for Zonker Harris Day, and was quickly arrested for criminal trespass.) On the marble rostrum, facing thousands of proud parents, one graduating senior paid homage to his arrested former schoolmates: he ripped open his red gown to reveal a poster attached to his body with the names of the “Wesleyan Five.”
College students use drugs, regardless of rulebooks. What seems more distinctive about Wesleyan’s episode was the hubris among a handful of neuroscience majors — the belief that they had the expertise to help their peers experience chemical bliss. At the same time, it’s not hard to imagine that Lonergan was drawn to Wesleyan for its apparent tolerance of non-conformist intellectual pursuits. Lonergan’s attorney, Jake Donovan, tells me, “It would have been more consistent with the climate at Wesleyan, in the prevailing situation, if the administration had been more conciliatory to the students’ academic standing. They expelled them immediately. If not complicit in the drug culture, the administration was certainly more than complacent.”
Nakib, whose charges are still pending, wrote to me, “Does an institution that has historically celebrated intellectual risk-taking and experimentation, inside and outside the classroom, reserve the right to prosecute the inevitable unpredictable results of such experiments harshly and without fair warning?”
Sarah has not been able to speak with Kramer since the federal charges were filed, because she is considered one of his ‘victims.’ She doesn’t see herself as a victim, though, and misses her close friend’s presence on campus. She stresses that what happened was a simple mistake, that the drugs had even been tested. “There was no malicious intent behind anything that they’re accused of,” she says. “No one ever intended to get anyone sick.” She remains frustrated by the way her school seemed to rush to judgment. “They want to have someone to say, the police got them, this isn’t something that happens at Wesleyan,” she tells me. “But Wesleyan historically has been a school that — we experiment, you know?”