Punishing Drinking Deters Safety

The Undergraduate

This past Wednesday, 47 Massachusetts colleges, including Harvard, committed to an alcohol safety “action plan” that is riddled with flaws. The schools signed onto a Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) campaign that calls for harsh punishments for alcohol abuse, mandatory alcohol education for all student group members and substance-free housing to be provided by colleges for all interested students.

The colleges that signed onto the action plan should think twice before implementing these suggested policies. The proposals are unlikely to decrease binge drinking at college campuses. At best, they will impose a costly burden and segregate students. At worst, they will endanger students who may become less willing to call authorities for help in risky situations.

The historical statistics imply that the proposed plans are doomed to fail. According to the March 2002 Harvard University College Alcohol Study, a survey of 10,000 undergraduates, 44 percent had engaged in binge drinking—consuming at least five drinks for males and four for females in one sitting—in the past two weeks. This percentage has barely fluctuated over the past eight years, despite a nation-wide decrease in fraternity and sorority membership, an increase in the student population living in substance-free housing and educational efforts by colleges to curb binge drinking. These failed measures are almost identical to what the DPH action plan proposes.

Massachusetts schools should not waste administrative time and resources rehashing failed programs. College students will see mandatory alcohol classes as a nuisance—no one will be surprised to learn that alcohol can cloud your judgment and that when consumed in excess can be dangerous to your body. Creating optional, substance-free housing would just segregate students at schools—like Harvard, for example—that value diversity in their dorms. Presently, students who do not want to drink can always choose to abstain—they don’t need their own dorms to do so. And while non-drinkers should not be considered babysitters for their peers, it’s clear that when binge drinking dangers arise, sober people are good to have around.

The most dangerous part of the DPH action plan, however, is the harsh punishment policy that it advocates for all schools. The plan suggests an initial abuse be punished by forced alcohol awareness-training, a second by disciplinary action and a third by probation or expulsion.

Using harsh punishments as a deterrent against underage drinking will probably not decrease student alcohol consumption—it hasn’t over the past eight years. But deterrents will undoubtably make students more afraid of getting caught.

This past May officers of the Ivy Club—a premier eating club at Princeton—faced punishments for bringing an intoxicated student out to the street after they had called for help. Three were charged by the Princeton police for “recklessly creating a dangerous situation for the victim, obstructing an investigation and tampering with evidence” and one was also charged with “serving alcohol to a minor,” according to The New York Times. Had these students not taken the initiative to call for help, however, the intoxicated student could have been in greater danger. Harsh punishments by local police and universities might scare students from making the call that the Ivy Club officers did.

Because of the potentially fatal consequences of inaction, students must feel safe erring on the side of caution, calling whenever they feel a person has had too much to drink. At the margin, when students are weighing whether or not to make the call, fear of disciplinary action should not tip the scales.

If Massachusetts colleges want to take action to improve student safety, they should not use harsh punishments as a deterrent for alcohol consumption. Rather, the schools should work to destigmatize getting help and should make punishment less of a concern for students.

At Harvard, for example, the policy in effect presently is that students cannot get in trouble for going to University Health Service (UHS) but that being drunk is not an excuse for misbehavior. This policy creates an ambiguous rule for punishment, and students are therefore mistrustful—many students will not call UHS for help in borderline cases.

My only call to UHS came sophomore year when a friend got drunk and passed out on my bathroom floor. I knew she became belligerent when she drank, and I warned the Harvard University Police Department officer who had been dispatched by the UHS urgent care ward. He assured me that “She won’t be belligerent with me. Either she’ll cooperate or she’s going to jail.” At the time I assumed the threat of discipline was just a motivational tactic. But the fact remains that if she had acted belligerently towards the officer, she could have been punished for her drunken misbehavior.

Students should recognize that the safety of their friends and themselves is more important than potential disciplinary action, whatever it may be. Fortunately, Harvard will probably not adopt the policies laid out in the DPH plan. But other Massachusetts schools must realize that by threatening harsh punishments for alcohol abuses, they are endangering student safety.

Judd B. Kessler ’04 is an economics concentrator in Adams House. His column appears on alternate Tuesdays.

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