Deans to enforce alcohol policies

Junior Advisors (JA) received an e-mail last Wednesday from Dean Merrill outlining a policy to deter them from purchasing alcohol for their underage first-years. The e-mail stated that JAs would be removed from their position after a second offense. These disciplinary sanctions troubled JAs, who have since declined to make any comment on the subject.

Recent incidents of student hospitalization due to alcohol consumption have worried administrators since the beginning of the school year. The current policy was launched following last weekend, during which five College students and one student from another school were sent to North Adams Regional Hospital (NARH) for excessive drinking. Thus last week’s e-mail not only detailed the consequences students will face for providing alcohol to minors, but also the College’s goal of tackling excessive drinking on campus. Strictly speaking, the policy stipulated in Merrill’s e-mail is not a new protocol, but a more formalized version of policies already in place.

While hospital visits and high blood alcohol content (BAC) levels are not uncommon at the College, numerous incidences of alarming BAC levels above .35, coupled with continued cases of biohazards, have heightened the administration’s sense of urgency in responding to the situation.

“To give you a sense of our weekends, we’re relaying ambulances from North Adams to campus,” said David Boyer, associate director of Campus Safety and Security, at the College Council (CC) meeting last Wednesday, which featured an open forum on bio-cleanups and alcohol. “This weekend we almost had to get an ambulance from two towns away. The officers are scared to death. It can’t get worse.”

According to Merrill, the stricter guidelines will apply to the entire campus. “JAs are just ones we’ve specifically talked to so far,” she said, adding that she intends to send an all-campus e-mail later this week outlining the College’s policy from this point forward.

Under the guidelines, any student caught providing alcohol to those underage will receive a written warning from the Dean’s Office. Upon second offense, the student will face disciplinary proceedings that could appear in his or her permanent record at the College. All students would have the opportunity to appeal before the Honor and Disciplinary Committee after their second offense.

In publicizing the policy, the College also intends to emphasize the severe legal repercussions facing of-age students who provide alcohol to minors. According to Massachusetts state law, such students risk a $2000 fine and imprisonment of up to six months. If a minor is injured as a result of alcohol use, the provider may face criminal conviction.

The College recently met with its lawyers, after which the administration decided that immediate action was imperative. “The more we spoke with the lawyers, the less and less comfortable we became with students not being aware of the severe risks they face [if caught providing to minors],” Merrill said. “We had to have a statement regarding the legal dangers.”

While the Dean’s Office has traditionally held the authority to discipline students caught providing alcohol to minors, the former policy was discretionary. “We had to have in place some notion of where we wouldn’t tolerate underage drinking,” Merrill said. “The power has always been here, everything’s just been very latent without specific guidelines.”

The College’s current approach towards underage drinking, however, may seem at odds with some of its past attitudes. During the reviews made by the 2004-5 Alcohol Task Force, the administration asserted that its response to underage drinking would be more educational than punitive. “When students talk to me about punishment, I just shake my head,” said Nancy Roseman, former Dean of the College, during a roundtable discussion with the Record in March 2004. “I just react when punishment comes up – frankly, I laugh. Because it’s so stupid. I don’t think punishing solves anything.”

According to Laini Sporbert, substance abuse counselor for the College, the discussion and punitive measures for underage drinking should be paired with drinking safety to be most effective. “My approach in working with students is from a harm-reduction standpoint,” she said. “If I can’t convince [students] that they should drink legally, at least I can give them tips on how to do it more safely.”

The administration’s current approach will largely focus on encouraging more discussion. While reports of underage drinking have gone directly to Security in the past, the Dean’s Office will now play a more active role in discussing incidences of illegal drinking with students, Merrill said. “The policy is largely in place to give a message that there’s an extra burden of risk when you provide,” she said. “Without an internal set of deterrents, it’s very easy to forget the legal repercussions.”

Unclear implications for JAs

According to the current policy, JAs only face repercussions from the Dean’s Office if there is clear evidence that they provided alcohol for their first-years. Merrill acknowledged that it is unclear what constitutes evidence, but that if first-years are repeatedly caught drinking in the presence of their JAs, the JAs will be called in to the Dean’s Office. “We’re not exerting energy on tracking proof,” Merrill said. “We just want to begin the discussion.”

Though JAs would lose their position after a second offense, most would not face disciplinary proceedings. In light of that sanction, Merrill maintained that the repercussions JAs face are no harsher than those faced by other students. “JAs are considered as having an extra set of responsibilities, so losing that might feel bigger,” she said.

The administration has yet to decide on what it would do after removing a JA from his or her position.

The formalized policy was initially met with contention from the JAs, who held a meeting on Friday to discuss its implications. The sentiment held by many JAs is that the guidelines place them at odds with their first-years. That the College now expects them to be more responsible for their first-years’ access to alcohol undermines the trusting friendship the JA system aims to foster between first-years and their advisors.

However, not all JAs have reacted negatively to the policy. According to Merrill, at least one JA told her that having formal guidelines may ease entry pressure to provide alcohol, allowing him to refer to the explicit disciplinary actions that he would risk by doing so.

After granting several requests for interviews, JAs declined to comment on the guidelines. “I think we just all feel like it’s a little too soon to evaluate the policy and how it’s going to affect our roles as JAs,” said Claire Whipple ’09, JA co-president. “I think once we have a better sense of what the policy means for us on a day-to-day basis, we’ll be able to comment.”

Whether the policy’s implications will affect entry dynamics is uncertain. “Nothing has fundamentally changed,” said a former JA who requested anonymity, emphasizing that the administration has merely formalized the policy. The former JA added that during their training, JAs are already explicitly warned that furnishing alcohol to minors may result in having one’s position as JA revoked.

From talking to students, Sporbert felt that while entries can be an environment where dangerous drinking occurs, it is certainly not the only place. “I don’t think JAs are purchasing for underage students [more frequently] than other of-age students,” she said. “I’ve gotten referrals for students who’ve used fake IDs, too, so maybe some of them are doing their own illegal purchasing.”

Some JAs see their entries as a place where drinking can occur safely. “We know that young people drink,” said Willy B JA Rachel Ko ’09. “They drink with their families at home safely, and if the entry system cannot provide a similarly safe environment, I don’t see any alternatives.”

Additional reporting by Yue-Yi Hwa, staff writer.