BU Today

Campus Life

Rules, Realities, and the Holy Grail

Alcohol on campus: can responsible drinking be taught?


Kenneth Elmore, dean of students, strongly emphasizes his individual, case-by-case response to alcohol-related infractions. Photo by Kalman Zabarsky

Part five of a five-part series exploring drinking on campus.

At a university searching for ways to teach responsible drinking and discourage alcohol abuse, Matthew Bae (COM’12) offers what seems to be a prevalent assessment: “BU’s such a big school. They can’t possibly be responsible for telling somebody that they have a problem. They do as much as they can. They make sure students know that it’s not legal if they’re not 21, and if you’re 21 there’s a limit. And if people break that, there are consequences. There are no surprises, no punches.”

There is also no respite for the police, resident assistants, and administrators whose job it is to enforce alcohol-related regulations and guide those students who drink toward a more healthful use of alcohol. The Judicial Affairs Office reports that between January 2009 and mid-October 2010, 1,409 alcohol violations were reported to either Judicial Affairs or Residence Life.

“Here’s what makes it so hard to teach students to drink responsibly,” says Kenneth Elmore (SED’87), dean of students: “the schizophrenic nature of how Americans view alcohol.” Elmore says the culture warns about the dangers of drinking, “while simultaneously glamorizing it in advertising, television, and movies.”

Lindsay Cherry (CGS’11) puts it succinctly: “Students are prone to drink. It’s what they do to have fun; I don’t think BU can stop it.”

So what is the best way to teach young adults to drink responsibly? What is a dean of students supposed to do?

“The best thing BU could do to would be to make people aware of the negative consequences, like date rape, instead of threatening them with university punishment,” says Hannah Simkins (CAS’11). “While I understand that BU must have a policy on underage drinking, I personally think people are more likely to make responsible decisions for themselves if they’re well-informed.”

David McBride, director of Student Health Services, says that encouraging college students to use alcohol responsibly is a long, hard road, perhaps an eternal road. But, he says, BU is doing much better than it was doing a few years ago. “We are newcomers to the realm of college drinking prevention,” he says. “Our program is really only four years old. We do a great job of enforcement, but we need to do more on prevention.”

Which is not to say that enforcement is the easy part. One thing that experts agree on is that when it comes to encouraging responsible drinking, nothing is easy. So while the University’s position on alcohol-related behavior seems simple—if it’s not legal in Massachusetts, it’s not legal on the BU campus—the numbers reveal a more complicated equation of crime and punishment. Of the 1,409 alcohol violations between January 2009 and mid-October 2010, 360 involved students who were transported to local emergency rooms, 271 cited for alcohol being consumed by a minor, and 76 charged with either underage possession or procuring alcohol for underage drinkers.

Disciplinary actions: a sliding scale
David Zamojski, director of residence life and an assistant dean of students, says that for students living on campus, disciplinary actions vary depending on individual circumstances. (Judicial Affairs handles incidents that happen on the street or involve students living off campus; Residence Life handles those that occur in dorms.) The first decision, he says—to arrest or not to arrest—is made by BU Police.

Matthew Tse (CAS’13) thinks at least one of their decisions ill-considered. Tse, who is not yet 21, was recently charged by BU Police with possession of alcohol. “My housemate, who’s 24, bought alcohol and let me hold the bag as we were walking down the street,” he says. “The BU police came up and said, ‘Hey, that’s possession of alcohol.’ They reported us and confiscated the alcohol. I felt I wasn’t in the wrong, but the police say to take it up with the courts.”

Tse says he expects to receive a court summons.

Boston University Police Captain Robert Molloy says the first concern is always the safety and well-being of the students. Court summonses, he says, are “the last thing we want to do.”

If a student appears to be intoxicated in a dorm, Zamojski says, RAs will ask the police to assess the situation, a routine procedure that some students believe is overkill.

“When students are caught with alcohol in the room, the question should be, how much alcohol is this kid drinking?” says Daria Whalen (CAS’11) “Especially if it’s a freshman or sophomore, obviously underage, it should be a question of, are they abusing it in a way that is dangerous?”

Bae says the policy doesn’t stop drinking, but it does teach students to be more discreet. “I can say that 100 percent of the people I know—they get in trouble, they go through the process,” he says. “Then they’re just more careful about it. They don’t stop; they just make sure they don’t get caught again.”

But a College of Arts & Sciences junior who didn’t want her name used says that disciplinary action helped a friend realize that she had a drinking problem. “In extreme cases,” says the student, “discipline does help.”

For alcohol violations that take place in dorms, the task of determining appropriate disciplinary action falls to the residence hall and area directors (if the student is not arrested). “Our disciplinary process is not strictly punitive,” says Zamojski. “There is an educational component to it. Students who violate the alcohol policy generally are expected to attend an alcohol education class led by professionals trained by Student Health Services. We do want some consistency, but we base our disciplinary decisions on the merit of the case, and handle every student as an individual.”

Elmore says that Judicial Affairs follows a similarly individualized path to disciplinary action. He says that while the University can’t officially grant amnesty to students who break the law, administrators work hard to find the most productive response. “It may not be discipline,” he says. “But we will ask students for some responsibility and accountability for their actions.”

Amnesty or no amnesty?
Elmore strongly emphasizes his individual, case-by-case response to alcohol-related infractions in defending the University’s refusal to adopt a policy of medical amnesty, which would pardon underage students who receive medical attention for overdrinking. Harvard has such a policy. Northeastern has one, and so does Emerson. The issue has long been a hot-button item for students.

Student Union president Arthur Emma (CAS’11) calls medical amnesty “a huge issue for the majority of students on campus,” adding that most students don’t know what to do when they or their friends get sick from an alcohol binge.

Elmore says he can’t believe that a student “would let someone suffer medically, or even die, because he might get in trouble.”

BU’s Lifebook states that students in such situations won’t “ordinarily” be subject to disciplinary actions as long as they complete recommended education and counseling programs. Sexual assault victims who had been drinking when assaulted are not subject to any disciplinary actions.

Like most universities’, BU’s efforts to discourage irresponsible use of alcohol are not purely reactive. Administrators and RAs try to head problems off at the pass. That effort starts at Orientation, where incoming students get the lowdown on campus drinking policy from Daryl DeLuca, an assistant dean of students. DeLuca urges new students to abide by drinking-age laws with a true story of a student who tried unsuccessfully to conceal his illegal drinking. Fearing discovery when someone knocked on his door in Sleeper Hall, he launched his keg out his eighth-floor window.

During move-in week, Zamojski welcomes students in an email that also lays out University regulations, including rules about drinking. And this fall, BUPD officers started visiting freshman dorms early on weekend nights to hand out information about drinking and how to notify BU Police if someone is in danger.

“It’s just to try to touch base with students as they’re going out for the evening,” says BUPD’s Molloy. Officers also make the rounds at residential life meetings and orientation sessions to discuss alcohol abuse. RAs are expected to follow up the effort with discussions about drinking and other regulations at the initial floor and house meetings in early September.

“RAs help students understand certain realities of life,” says Zamojski. “They let students know that if they carry a fake ID or if they are under 21 and transport alcohol, they will be subject to police intervention, possible arrest, and a possible summons.”

Zamojski says the RAs are expected to encourage students to take advantage of on-campus cultural events rather than off-campus parties. He believes that his staff acquires a sense of the day-to-day rhythm of life early in the year, and if they notice that a student is behaving strangely, they attempt to learn if alcohol is responsible. Often, he says, students are referred to counseling at Student Health Services.

They may meet with professional counselors there or with one of a dozen or so student health ambassadors, who are trained to work as liaisons between their peers and SHS.

Elizabeth Douglas, the University’s coordinator of alcohol and drug education programs, has some additional plans on the drawing board. Douglas hopes to rev up a program to train local bar owners and servers to recognize when patrons have drunk too much. Participants include Boston and BU Police, the Allston-Brighton Substance Abuse Task Force, and the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center.

William DeJong, a School of Public Health professor of community health services, who develops online alcohol education for college students nationwide, says the University has some useful programs in place, among them Student Health Services programs such as BASICS (Brief Alcohol Screening and Intervention for College Students), which offers an online report card for students to assess their drinking, get follow-up with abuse specialists if necessary, and learn the real skinny on their peers’ drinking habits. That’s important, he says, because research shows that many students believe that their peers drink more than they actually do, and consequently are encouraged to overindulge.

BASICS is one of the programs sometimes required for students who’ve been disciplined for alcohol infractions. Others include a one-time, 90-minute class on the risks of overdrinking and strategies to drink less; e-CHUG, an anonymous, online assessment that lets students measure their drinking levels and risk; group therapy; and a Behavioral Medicine phone line (617-353-3569) that advises people on how to help a student who may be having a drinking problem.

DeJong also has some ideas about how to improve things. One thing that would help, he says, is an online course describing the effects of alcohol on learning and brain development, and offering strategies for intervention that would discourage peers from drinking and from driving while drunk. He also points to exemplary programs at Harvard, which provides grants for alcohol-free social events; at Virginia Commonwealth University, where a website publicizes students’ healthy behaviors, including lower-than-popularly-perceived rates of excessive drinking; at SUNY Albany, where a hotline has trained undergraduates to advise peers about drinking problems; and at the University of Missouri, which runs a yearlong wellness program offering sessions in classrooms and dorms.

There are, of course, a great many things that universities can do to discourage irresponsible drinking, but as the CAS student who didn’t want her name used puts it: “There’s never going to be that perfect answer. It’s good that the University wants to make sure students are being responsible, but at the same time, we are adults. And we are responsible for our own decisions.”

Getting Help: Information about alcohol abuse treatment and support at Student Health Services can be found here. Learn more about alcoholand your health here. Resources and information about reporting sexual assault can be found here.

AlcoholScreening.org,a tool for confidentially assessing drinking and finding help, was developed by researchers at the BU School of Public Health.

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu. Leslie Friday contributed to this story. She can be reached at lfriday@bu.edu.


2 Comments on Rules, Realities, and the Holy Grail

  • Anonymous on 06.19.2011 at 11:16 pm

    I believe that students would be more willing to be safe about drinking if there wasn’t the huge risk factor of getting in trouble. I know that if one of my friends possibly had alcohol poisoning (this sounds terrible), I would not bring them to a hospital or call the police if I felt like I could get an MIP or something equivalent. If I knew that by helping my friend out I wouldn’t get in trouble, I would call an ambulance, contact the police, my RA, anyone really who could be helpful in the situation. I think that’s true for a lot of people, underaged students are more afraid of legal consequences than anything else.

  • Anonymous on 06.22.2011 at 3:20 pm

    A friend of mine went to Salve and, as a freshman, the school made her and all her classmates take an online alcohol safety course. It only took her an hour or so, but now every time we drink, she refers to the website and tells our friends how to drink responsibly. As freshman at BU, we have no such requirement. It may be hard to make the survey or class a requirement, but promises of something like a free itunes download or a chance to win something in a raffle may encourage students to try the course.

Post Your Comment

(never shown)