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It’s reasonable to assume that students generally understand the myriad risks associated with partying on and off-campus, but the recent Rohypnol scare gives good reason for all of us to exercise even more caution. Numerous educational programs have been established to keep students wary of strangers and precarious party situations; yet, regardless of students’ high awareness of potential party dangers, there is no full-proof, practical means to ensure a student’s immunity to some serious risks associated with heavy partying.
This unavoidable vulnerability was made evident by the recent discovery that while attending social events, two Harvard students unintentionally consumed Rohypnol—or some variant thereof—which is commonly referred to as one of several “date-rape drugs.” This discovery has also provoked accusations of inability on the part of University Health Services (UHS) employees’ ability to understand and properly treat Rohypnol poisoning. These weaknesses require immediate attention and investigation by University officials and prompt actions to improve UHS’s ability to respond quickly and effectively to this all-too-real threat to student safety.
Though UHS officials have claimed that their employees are capable of recognizing Rohypnol-related cases, one of the victims of the Rohypnol poisonings alleged that staff at UHS showed complete ignorance of the drug and the the available screenings when brought in for treatment the day after the incident. And UHS officials note that the majority of toxicology tests administered to students only test for the presence of alcohol—rather than the numerous other drugs that a student may have ingested.
The effects of such drugs are undeniably serious—ranging from blackout and amnesia to asphyxiation—and instigate obvious concerns of unwarranted and unprotected sex. In light of these recent cases, UHS should increase in the battery of tests administered to students who have possibly consumed a harmful drug.
Additionally, students should be correspondingly wary of the danger to themselves and their friends at parties. Rohypnol can be characterized with symptoms that could in some cases be mistaken for the regular effects of heavy drinking, which is why students should be particularly vigilant and looking for signs of nausea, vomiting and impaired motor skills and complete blackout that can last up to a full day after consumption. It can induce severe fatigue that generally begins within half an hour of consumption and peaks two hours thereafter. As an e-mail circulated by House’s Sexual Assault/Sexual Harassment (SASH) tutors warns, “unconsciousness, dizziness, shallow or irregular breathing or heartbeat, decreased blood pressure, drowsiness, visual disturbances” and a host of other symptoms can tip students off to this danger.
Just as UHS officials and students must take away instructive lessons from these disturbing cases, so too should administrators. An e-mail warning to SASH tutors from the Office of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (OSAPR) was sent issuing warnings and preventative measures for students; unfortunately they were not forwarded to students uniformly: some Houses received the information immediately, while others went without for days. The OSAPR and SASH tutors should develop a system that will allow as much information as possible to be consistently disseminated to all students as quickly as possible.
Of course, students must be urged to take preventative steps to reduce their risk of consuming contaminated drinks. But precautionary efforts, such as keeping an eye on drinks and never accepting one from a stranger, may only go so far. The most cautious of students are still at risk, and it is essential that they realize that any suspicions of having consumed these drugs will be taken seriously by skilled professionals at UHS without fear of reprimand.
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