Editorial: Make drinking safer: accept reality

“I aspire to a campus where drinking happens safely and legally,” Dean Merrill said on Monday. Unfortunately for Merrill’s first aspiration, the Dean’s office’s new JA-alcohol policy will do nothing to stem the flow of intoxicated students to North Adams Regional Hospital. And while largely unenforceable and thus innocuous, this set of sanctions reveals a tenuous grasp of the College’s alcohol culture by its administrators.

As outlined in the article on the front page, Merrill sent a letter to the JAs last week describing a set of new, specific punishments for JAs who buy alcohol for first-years. This policy represents an attempt to add a College-specific deterrent to the legal ramifications all of-age drinkers face when they buy alcohol for minors. While we respect most attempts to stop students and school alike from entering an ugly legal morass, we believe that this set of punishments is too arbitrary and poorly thought out to do much beyond preventing such liability nightmares.

The policy will be ineffective largely because it is unenforceable. In a Monday interview, Merrill was unable to outline what would constitute the evidence needed by the Dean’s office to invoke these punishments. Short of increasing entry Security walk-throughs tenfold and searching JAs’ wallets for receipts matching the brand of beer officers find frosh drinking, there is no way to procure incontrovertible evidence against JAs. Merrill has said the College has no intention to turn into a police state, so we know these enforcement techniques won’t happen. As a result, it will be nearly impossible to pin the punishment on the booze-buyers.

Furthermore, the Dean’s office is unable to provide a clear idea of what removing a student from the JA position would entail, unsure of whether that individual would continue to live in the entry or be replaced by another student. These uncertainties with policy implementation means that it’s unlikely that these new punishments will be enacted, suggesting that the policy is simply a pair of hollow threats.

Now, if the College’s goals are only to cover itself on legal grounds and make JAs think more carefully before purchasing alcohol for frosh, then the policy has the potential to be successful. With this set of proposed punishments written down, JAs can point to a tangible reason for saying “no” if they don’t want to buy booze for their frosh. And if they do purchase alcohol, they might be more likely to ensure it’s consumed in their presence, due to the knowledge that they could face repercussions if their charges got sick and tattled about the source of their hangovers. And, yes, it’s a two-way street: if frosh know their JAs are at risk if they buy them booze, many will be more careful with that alcohol, in essence returning a favor.

However, if anyone in Hopkins Hall is under the impression that these changes will lead to the end of dangerous drinking on campus, then they are mistaken. Entries are not the first-years’ only sources of alcohol and parties. Frosh also learn their drinking habits (and get their booze) from clubs, sports teams and informal gatherings in upperclassmen dorms. Even if these changes miraculously cut off the flow of liquor from JA to frosh, you can bet that 18-year-olds will still be drinking with gusto throughout the College.

It’s time to be realistic: short of assigning a Security officer to live on each floor of each dorm at the College, underage drinking will continue to happen here. Any alcohol policy that’s going to lead to safer drinking throughout the school will reflect this reality.

We suggest that making this underage imbibing less problematic requires the active involvement of JAs. As the people most invested in the health and well-being of first-years, JAs are in the best position to make sure these students learn to drink safely. The College’s practiced policies, if not their written ones (yes, we understand liability), should serve to encourage this kind of education.

First Days should include a more hands-on alcohol education component, wherein JAs talk to their entries about the details of the physiological and psychological effects of drinking. Putting alcohol-body weight charts on entry walls is one thing; having an upperclassmen you respect look you in the eye and describe the effects of five quick shots of vodka on a 110-pound first-year is quite another.

This is not the only kind of education the entry should foster. While we understand the problems with making this an official policy, we argue that Security should embrace the practice of turning a blind eye when they encounter entry groups drinking moderately with their JAs. Showing first-years that it’s more fun to enjoy a few beers during a Red Sox game than to pound shots and spend your night puking would be more effective than making alcohol a contentious point between advisers and advisees.

While far from comprehensive, we believe these suggestions will go much further towards the safe alcohol consumption Merrill claims to value. The bottom line is that if we want to make drinking safer, we can’t focus our energies on chasing the red herring of eliminating underage consumption. The administration must craft policies that will result in a safer campus, not just a less-liable College.

Leave a reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *