Alcohol policies codified

Get caught buying booze for minors once, and you can expect a harsh talking-to from someone in the Dean’s Office. Get caught twice, and welcome to disciplinary probation.

Such was the message of yesterday’s all-campus e-mail detailing the Dean’s Office’s new disciplinary sanctions for of-age students purchasing for their younger peers, a set of punishments Dean Merrill hopes will act as “speed limits” for College students considering these actions. The latest e-mail also included a slight adjustment to the Junior Advisor (JA) alcohol policy Merrill set out three weeks ago, a set of restrictions that many on campus have criticized.

“We have this idea at Williams that there can’t be this disciplinary action around drinking, that it will only drive it underground,” Merrill said. “But we don’t actually know that.”

Merrill added that other schools have disciplinary sanctions, and she has not seen evidence that those schools have greater problems with such underground drinking.

Under the new policy, the first time the Dean’s Office has evidence that a student has purchased alcohol for minors, that student will receive a warning. The second time a student is caught doing so, he or she will receive disciplinary probation. In addition, a student’s “eligibility to represent the College in extra-curricular activities may be reviewed.” If one of those extracurricular activities is serving as a JA, the student will “typically be removed from that position.” Students will be allowed to appeal all punishments before the Honor and Disciplinary Committee.

Though not included in the e-mail, Merrill said on Monday that a third offense would likely result in suspension.

The language Merrill used in the e-mail, and in discussions of the policy, emphasized the flexibility of the guidelines. Each potential punishment is couched with words such as “likely” and “typically,” in a manner meant to allow the Dean’s Office to review them on a case-by-case basis. For instance, she said that in the case of particularly dangerous and egregious cases, a student could be suspended for a second offense.

“These are guidelines,” Merrill said. “The Dean’s Office needs to take up cases individually. We always need to have wiggle room on both ends.”

Merrill said that these sanctions do not represent a final product of the College’s efforts to create a safer drinking environment. “We do not have a single, unitary alcohol policy,” she said, noting that the school is also examining alcohol education and rehabilitation programs as means of changing the College’s broader alcohol culture. She also said that discussions with leaders of sports teams are underway.

Though she stressed that the new punishment guidelines are one part of a broader solution, Merrill spoke forcefully in favor of the new measures. “We see these [guidelines] as speed limits,” she said. “Speed limits are important because people internalize them . . . They are good and effective at catching the most egregious speeders.” She went on to note that, “the College is neither a police state nor should it be a sanctuary for illegal, unsafe drinking.”

JA policy sparks controversy,

discussion, revision

By stating that JAs will “typically” be removed from their positions the second time they are caught buying for minors, Merrill’s latest e-mail reflects a departure from the rules set out three weeks ago. In the original e-mail, sent to the JA listserv on Oct. 17, Merrill simply said that a second offense would result in a removal from their role as a JA.

“It’s not going to be an automatic removal of position,” Merrill said. “Though in most cases [removal] will [likely] be involved.” The decision to make this change came after conversations with JAs and other students, who argued that the JA punishments should ultimately be consistent with those for other students.

JAs were not the only students discussing the guidelines in the weeks after their release. CC debated the policy at its Oct. 24 and Oct. 31 meetings, and sent an all-campus e-mail detailing its response to the rules on Halloween. The missive criticized the new policy, stating that the administration had taken a misguided step by adopting the new disciplinary policy. The e-mail described it as “detrimental to the critically important relationships JAs form with their first-years” and “ineffective in addressing” the policy’s central goals.

According to CC co-president Kim Dacres ’08, Council wrote the resolution largely based on concerns that the new guidelines would jeopardize interactions between JAs and first-years. “We wanted to make sure it wasn’t just about liability issues for the College,” she said. “We as students wanted to make sure people are safe.”

Other students echoed these concerns about the College focusing on liability rather than safety. “I feel that the administration really doesn’t care about alcohol consumption here on campus, with the exception of the legal aspects of it,” said Salvador Villa ’10. Andrew Triska ’10 spoke in similar terms, arguing that via the formalized policy, the College be moving towards the Resident Advisor (RA) system present at other schools and violating the bond of confidentiality and trust between first-years and their JAs.

Many students have argued that JAs can help create and regulate a healthier environment for first-years to drink than elsewhere on campus, and that the new policies will serve to eliminate that space and exacerbate the school’s drinking problem. “Rather than help curb the underage drinking problem at Williams, [it] will only result in more dangerous underage drinking practices,” said Alexandra Hoff ’09.

Merrill spoke critically of the idea of JAs creating a safer, more controlled drinking scene. “I’m sure that in many cases, that’s absolutely true,” she said. “But I think it’s partially an illusion of control. Unless you can chain down first-years to their chairs, you don’t know what they’re going to do.” She went on to point out that while drinking can start in an innocuous manner in the entry, first-years can easily go elsewhere after a few drinks with their JAs, setting themselves up for dangerous decisions.

Merrill also spoke against the general principle of making drinking a central entry activity. “A number of first-year students come to Williams as non-drinkers without a whole lot of interest in drinking,” she said. “JAs who sponsor drinking might simply alienate them from the entry.” She also noted that JA-sanctioned entry partying could easily turn a non-drinker into a drinker, which wouldn’t happen if the JAs did not sponsor alcohol-fueled events.

JAs have yet to make public statements on the subject. “It’s just too early for us to really understand how the policy will effect our relationships with our frosh,” said Claire Whipple’09, JA co-president. “Obviously, our first priority is our first-years, and we’re trying our best to look out for them.”

Ultimately, the administration maintains that JAs have a foremost responsibility for helping first-years transition to life at the College. The message relayed to them was “not about them personally but about the special set of obligations that JAs have to their first-years, as well as to themselves,” Merrill said.

However, given the unclear implications of JAs’ punishment upon second offense, students continue to question the logistics of the College’s formalized policy against JAs. “Honestly, how do you remove a JA? Before creating a punishment, there needs to be a system in which that punishment can work,” Mary Wilson Molen ’09 said.

Drinking culture at Williams

Despite several cases of dangerous blood alcohol content (BAC) levels above .35 and continued cases of bio-cleanups this fall, students feel that it is not necessarily the drinking itself that needs to change on campus. “It’s the minority population of heavy drinkers that harass people and destroy property,” Triska said. He added that students should not hesitate to turn people in if they are vandalizing properties, as it “would send the message that a) it’s not funny, harmless or part of Williams’ culture, and b) we’re not going to stand by quietly when these things happen.”

Accordingly, most agree that drinking at Williams is less about students’ inherent drinking habits, but more about a need for balance and common sense. “I think people should stop going to the hospital and defecating on walls if they want to keep complaining about getting in trouble for drinking too much,” said Bryan Vorbach ’09.

Two conflicting forces may be keeping current alcohol issues in a vicious circle: that is, students’ responsibility of coming forward when incidences happen versus the notion of betraying classmates’ confidence. “People should get more upset when they see others break things or be disrespectful to other people or their property,” said Mack Brickley ’08. “We’re so politically correct and non-confrontational here that people never step up when they see something – they’ll only bitch about it on WSO.”

At the same time, some noted the importance of keeping the College’s alcohol culture in perspective. “Things only really seem that bad because we go to a small school in the middle of nowhere,” Brickley said. “I’m not condoning it, but vandalism and drunken bad decisions happen everywhere.”

Still, Merrill realizes that much remains to be done. One specific concern revolves around the role of hard alcohol on campus. The College is well aware of students pre-gaming with shots, a primary cause of many students landing in the hospital, Merrill said. “We want to work with students on creating a safer and healthier campus culture when it comes to drinking,” she said. “Also, we very much want to get students involved in thinking about what kind of community they want to have here, looking to other models in other colleges.”

CC co-president Morgan Goodwin ’08, too, said that any efforts to modify the nature of the campus’ drinking culture must come from student leaders. “A lot of students are saying that [the alcohol issue at hand] is something the administration doesn’t have a lot of direct control over,” Goodwin said.

Molen has suggested, for example, the need for peer education programs in addressing the College’s aims to make drinking as safe and smart as possible. “In reality, there will always be ways for would-be underage drinkers to get alcohol,” she said. “Short of making the drinking age 18 again, I doubt anything will change that.” Peer education programs, then, will conceivably give first-years a chance to hear upperclassmen’s first-hand stories on what happened when they overindulged, Molen said.

Although the Committee on Undergraduate Life (CUL), in concert with the College administration, initiated the examination of campus drinking culture via the Alcohol Task Force in 2004, CUL has not actively engaged in current alcohol or bio-cleanup debates. “CUL is focused on more long-range planning and facilitating faculty/student interactions,” said Stewart Johnson, CUL chair and professor of mathematics. Johnson added that the alcohol culture has long been a concern at this and many other campuses. For now, CUL will not be involved in making responsive decisions towards the alcohol policy.

Additional reporting by Kevin Waite and Rhassan Hill, Record staff.

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