Colleges Should Stop Punishing Students Who Drink

Drinking on college campuses is a problem.
Drinking on college campuses is a problem.
Photo by Sabphoto/Shutterstock

It was 1 a.m. Saturday, January 16, when a pair of uniformed men shook Jaiema Pierre awake. The petite 18-year-old nursing major had fallen asleep in a friend's dorm room at the Indian River Towers on Florida Atlantic University's Boca Raton campus.

"What year is it?" one of them asked.

"Where are you?" came the followup.

Pierre, who's from Miami, was terrified and confused. It took her a minute to realize the two were campus police officers. An older student had called, they said, and they wanted to take her to Boca Raton Regional Hospital to be treated for alcohol poisoning. But there was a problem. Pierre wasn't drunk. Soon they confirmed she didn't need to be hospitalized and left.

Within weeks, though, a hold had been placed on Pierre's student account. She had also been ordered to attend an alcohol counseling session, and informed that a report about underage drinking would be placed in her academic record.

"I was like, 'Are you kidding me?'" Pierre exclaims. "I don't understand how they had a right to enter the room."

Binge and underage drinking is an epidemic on college campuses across the nation. It's linked to lower grades, missing classes, and depression. According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, 690,000 students are assaulted every year by others who have been drinking, and 97,000 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape. Eighteen hundred students die annually from unintended alcohol-related injuries like drunk driving collisions and accidental overdoses.

As graduations take place across the area this month, there are sure to be more problems.

For decades, schools such as Florida Atlantic University, University of Miami, and Florida International University have tried to pinpoint the most effective alcohol policies. Though medical research suggests that restricting happy hours and strictly enforcing ID laws on campus and at nearby bars is the cheapest and most practical approach, some places like FAU have chosen to punish students.

That is a lousy idea, say not only those unfairly targeted like Pierre, but also many others. Students for Responsible Drug Policy, an international network dedicated to safe drug reform, contends rules like those at FAU dissuade students from coming forward when there are safety concerns.

"It's ridiculous," says junior Luis Montoya, a member of Florida International University's chapter of Students for Responsible Drug Policy. "Students don't feel comfortable calling the cops if something really does go down. They shouldn't feel afraid or face punishment if they need to get help."

Student codes of conduct at FAU, FIU, and the UM — three of the area's largest schools — list counseling sessions, parental notification, official reprimands, and restitution as possible sanctions for drinking on campus. But they differ in enforcement.

The FIU student handbook states the university "does not want to discourage students from seeking medical assistance. Therefore, students involved in [events where drinking has taken place] may not be charged with the possession or consumption of alcohol if one of them calls for assistance for themselves or others." However, the handbook clearly states that other charges related to the incident, like alcohol distribution and other non-alcohol charges, "may be pursued."

UM is somewhat tougher. Though the school has an amnesty program that connects students with counseling, there's also a range of disciplinary sanctions. According to the student handbook, UM fines students $75 for underage possession of alcohol, $75 for underage intoxication, $100 for intoxication requiring emergency treatment, $75 for alcohol paraphernalia (such as kegs and bottles), $100 for operating a motor vehicle while drinking, and $100 for public intoxication regardless of age.

At FAU, there's a medical amnesty policy, but "it does not apply to other prohibited behavior." Most students are required to attend an education program after an alcohol violation. Then other sanctions are imposed. Among them are "payment of administrative costs," parental notification, and as much as 15 hours of community service.

Since January, FAU Police have been called 19 times for "alcohol violations," according to a New Times review of FAU police reports. The reports show students are rarely caught drinking on campus but more often are stopped by police once they return to the dorms. Four reports describe students vomiting or rambling incoherently as a result of alcohol consumption. In most cases, police either spotted allegedly drunk students roaming on campus or a roommate or resident assistant called on their behalf. One time a drunken student called police and said she was suicidal. Three reports quote students who acknowledged a slight buzz but said they didn't need medical treatment.

Nineteen-year-old Claire, a freshman who requested anonymity, contends her drink was spiked at an off-campus bar this past February 19. Friends helped her back to the dorm at FAU's Indian River Tower. Afterward, Claire began throwing up in her bed. A resident assistant called campus police. But Claire was wary of police and didn't want to go to the hospital.

"After what happened, I'm definitely less likely to call police in the future," Claire says. "Some guy gives me a drink at this bar and I don't remember anything. Then a few weeks later, I get this email notifying me that I had to take an alcohol class and pay $150. It was awful." In the future, she says she won't call campus police. She hopes if someone is concerned about her safety, they'll send her in an Uber to the hospital.

Another time, 18-year-old Sara — who also requested not to be named — called campus police because she needed medical help. She had sprained her wrist after playing a prank with a pumpkin in FAU's Heritage Park dorms. But after getting treatment, the officer listed "alcohol violation" as the crime and noted she was "under legal age to consume alcoholic beverages... This case will be referred to the Dean of Students."

Sara maintains that the case had nothing to do with alcohol, even though a police report mentioned underage drinking. She is upset to know that police filed a report about the alcohol violation, even if the deans did not impose any sanctions. "I don't see how it's relevant," she says.

There have been times when FAU cops saved the day. According to a police report, 18-year-old hospitality major Nina — also anonymous — went drinking at an off-campus bar in Delray Beach February 28. Later, she returned to the Heritage Park Tower dorms. There, a resident assistant saw Nina come in swaying and thought she needed medical help. The RA called campus police. When they arrived, Nina was lying on the bathroom floor and unable to sit up properly. She would "nod her head when asked questions and also made regurgitating noises while hovering over the toilet. [She] became unresponsive after being seated up with her back against the wall," according to a police report.

Nina met with deans and was ordered to attend alcohol counseling sessions. She wasn't fined, and she isn't bitter. She's actually grateful someone called police to check on her — although she wishes there wasn't a police report documenting her at her most vulnerable. "I thought the school was helpful, and I didn't find it annoying," she says. "It was fair. My parents found out, but they know that it was a mistake and not a big deal." She says she would call campus police again.

Moises Zamora is a freshman at the University of Miami majoring in political science and public health. He's also vice president of UM's chapter for Students for Sensible Drug Policy. Zamora says counseling sessions and educational programs can help students, but only if the student has an addiction. "The best deterrent is creating a sense of community on campus, talking about the reasons students drink," Zamora insists.

But living in the freshman dorms at UM, Zamora also witnesses firsthand the successes and failures of the alcohol policy. "No one is going to say 'Let's not drink because we might have to pay $75,'?" he says. "I can tell you what the university is doing doesn't work. A fine is not a deterrent for students."

Zamora likens college alcohol policies to sex education classes promoting abstinence. "Abstinence also didn't work. People just got STDs and pregnant," he says. "The university needs to accept the reality that students drink alcohol and will continue to drink alcohol." If colleges don't adjust their policies, Zamora worries that students will be forced to handle situations by themselves. "Students might realize they're heavily intoxicated and be afraid to go back to campus and get in trouble. Essentially, students will feel that they have to deal with these problems on their own."

Pierre, the nursing major who was shaken awake in the middle of the night by campus police, says she knows how much alcohol she can handle. After police were called and she was disciplined, she was so outraged that she considered hiring a lawyer. But she didn't have the time or money between studying and work. She has since tried to put the ordeal behind her.

Pierre says she's getting A's in her classes and will continue to drink responsibly. But the only lesson she learned is to be more mindful of how she returns to the dorms after a night out. She is underage after all. The spring semester is now over, and Pierre has already taken the counseling course, which she says was a waste.

"The lady was trying to insinuate that I have an alcohol problem," Pierre says, shaking her head. "I don't have a problem. I'm a college student."

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