Law allows college to report drinking violations

A recent amendment to the Higher Education Act now nakes it easier for colleges to inform parents when any student under the age of 21 violates drug and alcohol laws. Some institutions, like the University of Delaware, have already instituted parental notification policies as a result of the change in federal law. However, the administration at Williams has not yet discussed policy change and administrators at the Dean’s Office declined to comment on the change.

According to a December 4 article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, the Higher Education Act formerly contained a clause allowing schools to report violations of only financially dependent students. The complexity of deciding which students are financially dependent has prohibited most colleges from reporting underage drinking violations to parents. The article reports that the amendment eliminates this condition, creating debate amongst institutions of higher education. Specifically, schools are pondering whether it is best to report the violations of students, many of whom come to college to seek independence from parental guidance.

Williams is just beginning to address the issue. Director of Security Jean Thorndike said she is not yet sure whether the amendment will affect policy at Williams, but is certain that it will have consequences for the security department.

“At this time, I don’t think anyone can say if there will be an effect on college policy,” she said. “I do know that it will have a major impact on security in terms of our record keeping and publishing of crime statistics.”

Thorndike sees both benefits and drawbacks to reporting underage drinking to parents.

“One of the benefits would be when parents become an additional resource for the student when she or he is experiencing problems,” she said. “The additional support and understanding can only be an asset. But I think this relates to many ‘issues’ with students and their parents, not just drinking. Obviously, the downside would be when positive interaction didn’t occur.”

Security’s current sanctions for underage drinking do not involve the notification of parents.

“From Security’s viewpoint, our current policy requires compliance with the 21-year-old drinking age,” Thorndike-Wilson said. “It also acknowledges that underage drinking does occur but attempts to address many of the concerns of underage drinking. Although it is not a perfect response, I think the sanctions are appropriate. Basically, we have four levels of sanctions and depending on the particular circumstances any or all of the sanctions may apply. The sanctions range from being called to Security to discuss compliance with Massachusetts law and the sanctions imposed for any future violations; a discussion with Security followed by a referral to Health Services; a direct referral to Health Services; a direct referral to the Dean’s Office. Our primary goal is to provide an educational component rather than a punitive response. Students need to understand they have broken the law and violated college policy. They must assume responsibility for their actions and understand how their actions impact others in the community, especially the 21-year-old host.”

Director of Health Services Ruth Harrison explained the Health Center’s policy toward underage drinking. She said currently there are only two instances when a parent would be notified of underage drinking. First, she said when a student in medical danger is sent to the hospital, the hospital is required to report the incident. Second, the Health Center may notify parents if a student is a danger to himself or to other students.

Harrison insisted that the Health Center’s main goal is to benefit students.

“We would always talk to a student first (before notifying parents),” she said. “I think sometimes there is a need to talk to parents. That would be if someone had a real alcohol problem, but we would still want to talk to the student.”

Health Educator Laini Sporbert added that there might be advantages to the freedom the amendment gives schools.

“This may give students more options for communication,” Sporbert said.

Harrison agreed that communication is the main advantage of the amendment.

“This may open up more opportunity for dialogue with parents,” she said. “I know that we wouldn’t do it in any instance that wouldn’t benefit a student. We wouldn’t do it in a retaliative manner at all.”

Co-President of Junior Advisors Carrie Sloan ’00 was not as sure that reporting incidents to parents would be beneficial, even in aiding communication.

“I’m not sure that forcing information on parents would improve communication,” she said. “If parents found out from the school instead of from their sons and daughters, I’m not sure it would aid the relationship [between parents and children].”

Sloan expressed concern that such reports could actually injure relationships.

“Not every family is going to respond supportively to [parental notification] – it could be destructive,” Sloan said. “In terms of safety, I don’t think a drinking problem would be solved by reporting to parents. There are probably more deeply rooted problems. I think it might be aggravated by the threat of parents finding out.”

She also worried that the amendment allows parents to relinquish allows parents and their children to relinquish their responsibilities. Sloan surmised that the root of the problem is further back, and that this sort of breach of privacy is not a solution.

“It [a parental notification policy] seems like it’s replacing the relationship between parents and students,” she said. “I don’t think you can depend upon laws to improve familial relationships. While I realize I’m not providing a solution, this sort of law seems to be trying to replace a situation of communication that needs work on the part of the family, and cannot be implemented with a law. It injures privacy, and at the same time seems to indirectly support absent or problematic parenting.”

Thorndike-Wilson said the University of Delaware and other schools seem to have been successful with parental-notification policies.

“From everything I hear, U of D is very pleased with their notification policy,” she said. “Apparently, they have quite a campaign to educate students (especially first-years) as soon as they arrive on campus so all students know what the policy is and there are no surprises when parents are notified. It’s hard to predict the effect at Williams if we did something similar. I can only say that if it did happen, I’m sure there would be a great deal of consideration given to it prior to implementation. But, I’m sure it would generate some very lively discussion”

Liability

According to the Chronicle article, some college administrators wonder whether the amendment adds legal risks if they don’t report underage drinking violations to parents. Harrison attended a conference on Thursday which addressed issues of underage drinking on college campuses. A lawyer was present to address legal concerns

“The lawyer assured us that right now private colleges are okay,” she noted. “None of the judgments brought so far have held colleges legally responsible [for accidents caused by underage drinking].”

However, Harrison said this policy may change in the future. Specifically, she said an incident at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology last fall (when a student died as a result of alcohol poisoning at a fraternity initiation) has pompted discussion of the laws surrounding liability.

“It is my understanding that notification is not mandatory, but the amendment ‘permits’ disclosure,” Thorndike-Wilson said.

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