Story by Danielle Emig :: Illustration by Crystal White
After Devon Stewart had alcohol poisoning during his freshman year, he recalled being harassed by police, rather than helped.
Stewart knew he had to do something.
As the founder and president of Syracuse University’s chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, he introduced a medical amnesty policy to Student Association last semester, but it wasn’t until this semester that he and SA began pushing for it.
SU passed a medical amnesty policy on March 1 that will go into effect fall 2010. The policy will allow students on- and off-campus to call for help in drug and alcohol emergencies, no questions asked. The goal is to encourage students to call for help without fear of punishment. SU will be the 92nd college to implement such a policy.
A student can request amnesty with the Department of Public Safety and Syracuse University Ambulance, but has to abide by state laws when the Syracuse Police are involved. When amnesty is requested, the student will be pardoned of alcohol or drug offenses and will not face judicial action.
Every weekend students are seen wandering drunkenly from party to party until the morning hours. The Department of Public Safety usually does not interrupt unless there are serious situations, and drinking in the dorms usually just receives a write up. But some universities are now notifying parents of minor alcohol violations in order to curb underage drinking.
Virginia Tech began notifying parents of students who are under 21 and get caught with booze, even if the student was just caught with a beer in a dorm room for the first time.
The policy started mainly because many parents were complaining that they were unaware of their child’s behavior until they faced suspension. It’s supposed to help students open up and get parents more involved, but many students go away to college to escape parental boundaries. And many argue that drinking is part of the college experience.
Frostburg State University in Maryland has noted a decrease in alcohol offenses since tough parental notification rules were implemented in 2008.
Frostburg State President Jonathan C. Gibralter is also attempting to change the culture of alcohol abuse by talking to city officials, bar owners, and alcohol distributors.
Along with enforcing alcohol violation punishments, the chancellor of University of Wisconsin-Stout recently announced another method to curb underage drinking: a full schedule of Friday classes. The idea is to discourage drinking on “Thirsty Thursday.”
Some schools use parents to discourage their children from drinking, because a scolding from Mom may be more effective than legal consequences. While this may be affective, it also stops students from calling for help in alcohol and drug emergencies because they fear the legal consequences. Hence the reason for the medical amnesty policy.
Although a student can receive help without any questions asked, DPS will still have to take a report of the incident and follow up with the student. The Office of Judicial Affairs refused to elaborate on the actions taken after a student receives help, but Stewart hopes to create a drug and alcohol education program to follow up with students. It would differ from Options, an alcohol and drug education referral and assessment program at SU.
“Education is a big thing with this policy,” Stewart said.
Although the student handbook states, “in cases of intoxication and/or alcohol poisoning, the primary concern is the health and safety of individuals involved,” Stewart says he was being questioned and harassed when he most needed help.
“That’s another thing that prompted me to do this,” he said.
The policy is in the final stages of being drafted with OJA, Division of Student Affairs, Options, and Stewart.
Although SU does not notify parents of minor violations, letters are sent out in more serious situations. A lot of student information is kept private under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act, but colleges are allowed to notify parents of under-21 students without consent. They can also notify in cases of health emergencies, regardless of age.
“The purpose is so parents know what is going on with their students,” said Gerald Martin, director of OJA.
Under the amnesty policy, students can avoid judicial action. But if the student is behaving improperly or destroying property, those problems will still have to be addressed. Students will also have to go through the Options program if it becomes a recurring problem.
SA and SSDP looked at other similar medical amnesty policies before drafting one at SU. They looked at Cornell University’s results. Four years after the policy implementation at Cornell, there was a 44 percent increase in calls from students.
Dan Scorpio, SA director of public relations, said that “at colleges that had the policy in place, calls for medical help, transportation, or assistance increased greatly. What became clear to SA and SSDP was that it works, which is why they pushed so hard to get it here.”
If Syracuse police become involved, then the student has to abide by state laws. Otherwise, a student can request amnesty with DPS and Syracuse University Ambulance, meaning that they will avoid judicial action. The amnesty program will not supersede any state laws, Scorpio said.
Judicial Affairs annual reports have showed a decrease in alcohol-related cases, from 845 cases in fall 2006 to 549 cases in fall 2008. Although there is no definite reason for this, Patrick McPeak, associate director of OJA, said it might be attributed to the prevention and outreach efforts of the university.
The reports also show a much higher number of cases in the fall than in the spring.
“The fall is, for first-year students, their first glimpse at ‘college life’ and, as such, [they] tend to experiment more than students who are a bit further along in their personal development and academic career,” McPeak said.
A 2006 intoxication analysis from OJA showed first-year students had many more cases for extreme intoxication than any other year. Males also had more cases than females. The analysis further showed that the greatest number of extreme intoxication referrals happened on Halloween weekend.
Although OJA noted a decline in alcohol-related cases in university housing since the 1999-2000 academic year, referrals from off-campus parties increased.
Students are referred to OJA in cases involving alcohol and drugs. But SU has no policy to contact parents in non-emergencies, according to Pamela Peter, assistant director of Office of Residential Life.
“Parents are notified if students are transported to the hospital for excessive alcohol intoxication,” she said. “We do not have a policy to contact parents if a student is transported for a drug overdose, given that if a student reaches that point, the hospital will contact parents.”
SSDP’s next plan is to have a table discussion on legalizing marijuana this month. Stewart wants to have both sides present, but he wants to address why it’s safer than alcohol. He also plans to address the overall drug policy and make sure that students know of the medical amnesty policy.
Stewart also made sure to include drugs in the medical amnesty policy.
“The policy is no good if it covers just alcohol,” said Stewart. “Drinking underage is just as illegal as doing drugs.”