The drinking debate

    Photo by John Meguerian / North by Northwestern.

    More than 60 students gathered at the Rock for a candlelight vigil to commemorate SESP freshman Matthew Sunshine last June. But for the hundreds of students who had never met Sunshine, questions about how, why and could this happen to me or my friend ran rampant.

    A year later, one question continues to linger: How could we have prevented it?

    Drinking was the biggest factor in Sunshine’s death, but did Northwestern’s drinking policy play a role? Would it have happened if, like Yale, Northwestern had a medical amnesty policy?

    Under medical amnesty, the school wouldn’t take disciplinary action against an underage student that required medical attention or anyone assisting them after drinking, instead giving the student counseling. The program is designed to encourage students to seek help after they’ve been drinking rather than hide and risk the dangers of alcohol poisoning for fear of getting punished. A University of Virginia study found that 42 percent of private schools and 33 percent of public schools with a medical amnesty program thought it had helped reduce alcohol poisoning and that a majority thought it increased the percentage of students who would recognize an alcohol emergency and the likelihood that they would get help.

    Senior Drew Henry says Yale’s medical amnesty program has helped make the campus safer. Henry works as a freshman counselor, a position similar to a Northwestern CA.

    Henry says that Yale is pretty lax about policing alcohol, which combined with the amnesty policy keeps it from being too unsafe.

    “We’re not police, we’re just here if people get sick,” Henry explains. “It’s part of Yale’s policy of safety first. If someone’s sick and has to go to health services, there’s no punishment.”

    The program has been met with success at dozens of other schools, but has yet to be instituted at Northwestern. During this spring’s ASG elections, both Mike McGee and Bill Pulte ran pro-amnesty. And during an April administration forum with President Henry Bienen, Vice President of Student Affairs William Banis and Senior Vice President of Business and Finance Eugene Sunshine, Banis said that while the school is looking into medical amnesty, legal considerations made the decision a difficult one.

    Medical amnesty is only one proposed solution to the problem of underage drinking on college campuses.

    ASG Vice President Tommy Smithburg started the ASG Alcohol Safety Task Force, designed to reduce the risks involved with the leisure activity of choice at most colleges, in March.

    “We’re not in favor of any one policy, we’re in favor of the safest policy,” Smithburg, a Weinberg junior, says. “Our goals are that anyone in trouble gets help and that nobody gets in a situation where they’re in trouble.”

    As it stands, Northwestern’s policy on alcohol is unclear. The Northwestern student handbook explicitly prohibits underage drinking on campus and Evanston police are equally vocal about the illegality of underage drinking outside of campus, but the official policies hardly tell the whole story.

    “There is a quasi-amnesty program, but you don’t know that until you’re called into Mary Desler’s office,” Smithburg says.

    “We take it on a case-by-case basis,” Director of Judicial Affairs and Dean of Students Jim Neumeister told North by Northwestern in January. “It’s really going to depend on the details. Our paramount concern is the student’s safety.” Neumeister said that Northwestern has been examining medical amnesty as a possible new policy for Northwestern, but is still looking for the safest option.

    Still, Smithburg says, it could all be moot. Without proper education and an explicit policy, students won’t know about it and most importantly, don’t take advantage of the safe solutions when necessary. He would like to clear up the confusion over policy by setting up a Web site — or a “central portal,” as he calls it — that outlines Northwestern’s alcohol policy and answers the important questions, like whether a student will get in trouble after calling an ambulance for a sick friend. “I’m envisioning a CliffsNotes to Northwestern’s policy because right now it’s just murky,” he says.

    Still, a change in policy won’t change students’ drinking habits in a big way, Smithburg says.

    “The policies themselves don’t do much because I think it’s more cultural,” he says. “A lot of people see drinking as an escape from the academic environment. Sure some policies can curtail drinking, like your study abroad applications being held, but it’s not going to stop it.”

    “Very few college presidents want to deal with it because they don’t have the solution.”
    - Michael Lanahan, president of The Gordie Foundation

    But there is also proof that a university’s actions can seriously affect the way students drink. At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, students look forward every year to the first Friday in March, where they celebrate an unofficial St. Patrick’s Day ingeniously called “Unofficial.” Think of it as Dillo Day in the middle of the year. But while the university is generally lax on enforcing drinking, they’ve been increasingly strict on Unofficial.

    “This year and last year, they’ve been harshly enforcing punishments for people who get caught drinking,” University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign senior Andy Herren says. “There are police everywhere, even outside the big lecture halls. That pushed a lot of the drinking underground.” But underground doesn’t necessarily mean less drinking is occurring; school officials are just less likely to know about it.

    Maxwell Tang, a junior at University of Chicago, also says he suspects the university is even discreetly pushing drinking. “I heard that ten years ago, the school was really trying to encourage kids to go out,” Tang says. “They kind of encourage it for us to have some fun. Most kids feel comfortable drinking and aren’t too afraid of getting caught.”

    Henry says that Yale is pretty lax about policing alcohol, which combined with the amnesty policy keeps it from being too unsafe.

    More schools are tending towards the lax side of enforcing alcohol policies, a trend that worries Michael Lanahan. Lanahan is the president of The Gordie Foundation, an organization designed to encourage safe and smart drinking on college campuses to prevent alcohol poisoning. The Foundation created a chapter of its Circle of Trust program at Northwestern this year, after Sunshine’s death.

    Lanahan’s group is trying to work with students and administrators to encourage more openness and education about the dangers of drinking. He says that after education, the first step to preventing more deaths is to have officials and authority figures show students safe ways to act.

    “Very few college presidents want to deal with it because they don’t have the solution,” Lanahan says. “Colleges are in denial about it and they don’t want to deal with it because it’ll just publicize that they are strict on drinking.”

    Still, Lanahan says he’s more concerned with making sure kids are safe rather than disciplined. He would support medical amnesty, but only as a way to teach about the dangers of drinking and keep it out in the open.

    How much does a university’s policies change the nature of drinking on college campuses? Even though Cornell University said that after instituting medical amnesty in 2002, the number of emergency room visits and those treated for alcohol poisoning increased, Smithburg points out that that number is two-faced. While it means more students are seeking help, it also means they are still drinking heavily. A loose policy doesn’t stop drinking any more effectively than a strict one that pushes alcohol behind the curtain.

    An amnesty program may or may not have helped Sunshine get medical help, but it wouldn’t have stopped him from drinking that night. And while ASG may strive to change the nature of drinking and make it safer, there’s no stopping it.

    “If the administration was being strict and saying, ‘Don’t drink,’ or being loose and just telling us to be careful, people would drink,” Herren says. “We’re in college.”


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