Thumbnail artwork by Kim Jao.

Content warning: This article mentions substance use, hospitalization and difficult experiences with amnesty. If you are in crisis and need on-campus support, call NU Counseling and Psychological Services at 847-491-2151, or please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

One night in Spring Quarter during her first-year, Weinberg second-year Christina Warner checked in on her best friend Anna* who went clubbing in downtown Chicago. Warner, who had stayed home that night, learned that Anna* had become too intoxicated, so she decided to book an Uber for her to return to campus.

When the Uber arrived, Warner and another friend checked on Anna* and began to worry that she might be in danger, so they decided to call an ambulance. Warner described the University staff at the scene as helpful.

“In the moment, the people that we interacted with that worked for the school – like the residential assistant – were very supportive, and their main priority was to make sure she was safe,” Warner said.

The RA took down the names of Warner and her friends when the ambulance arrived. While Northwestern never contacted Warner again regarding this case, she said Anna* had multiple disciplinary hearings scheduled, as residential directors tried to determine whether or not she qualified for amnesty. This is where Warner got confused.

“I knew that by calling we would get amnesty, but I assumed [Anna*] would also get immediate amnesty – that everybody would get immediate amnesty,” Warner said.

After these hearings, the Office of Community Standards agreed to grant amnesty to Anna* on the condition of being placed on housing probation and being required to speak with a counselor about alcohol awareness. OCS then told Warner’s friend that if she got caught in the same situation while on probation, she would be expelled from campus housing.

Northwestern’s Amnesty Through Responsibly Action is a protocol that withholds disciplinary sanctions for alcohol-related policy violations from students who call and are called for medical assistance due to substance use, according to the Office of Community Standards’ website. The United States government requires the University to comply with the Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act, which mandates higher education institutions to have policies that address substance use because they receive federal funding.

Yet some students believe the protocol is overcomplicated when it comes to determining who gets amnesty and what consequences students will face, which students said would deter them from calling for help again in the future. This puts the friends who call for help in a dangerous limbo between assessing how badly their friend needs an ambulance and if the potential consequences their friend would undergo are worth it.

Breaking down the policy

Associate Dean of Students and OCS Director Lucas Christain said Northwestern's approach to substance violations prioritizes harm reduction and educational opportunities.

“We try to approach [substance use violations] with a mind where we understand how students are going to probably have exposure to or drink while in college,” Christain said. “And so, how can we do that in ways that are safe, and when we respond to issues that violate our policy, how do we do that in an educational way?”

Christain said that students who gain amnesty do not get substance use violations put on their conduct record. The process of deciding whether or not a student is granted amnesty begins with the information gathered from any University staff member at the scene of someone being hospitalized. Afterward, OCS will send the student who was hospitalized an email to schedule a disciplinary hearing to discuss the details of the case.

With all of this information, Christain added that OCS and RDs determine if the case qualifies for amnesty by assessing whether or not the people involved called, stayed and cooperated. An assistant director of residential life who oversees all cases ensures that the protocol is being applied consistently. Finally, they decide the type of substance use education a student needs based on the unique circumstances of their case.

Despite this long series of actions, Christain described that the thought process for granting amnesty is straightforward. He added that while some other universities put their students through procedures that mirror the criminal justice system, all alcohol infractions and low level drug violations at Northwestern are referred to OCS and handled internally.

“The most important thing is that it's simple for people, that if you call, stay and cooperate, you're going to receive it, whether you're the student that is impaired, or you're another student that's calling for them, and you've also been using substances and may be intoxicated or underage,” Christain said.

Making the call

For Warner, the process felt more complicated. She said that the existence of multiple disciplinary hearings and threats of expulsion overcomplicate the protocol of amnesty, putting students in dangerous positions where they’re scared to call for help. She added that she wouldn’t have called for an ambulance if she’d known her friend would have to go through multiple hearings and be put on probation.

“If, as a school, you are enforcing all of these rules that are going to prevent students from getting the safe resources they need in those unsafe situations, I think that can lead to very dangerous things,” Warner said.

Medill second-year Justine Fisher, who has sat through two disciplinary hearings for other friends, also finds the long process of amnesty confusing. While she would still call for help if she was scared for the life of her friend, she sees the process of disciplinary hearings as a “second punishment” – with the first being the experience of over drinking and getting hospitalized. Fisher said it only deters people from calling the ambulance, not from drinking again in the future.

“I don't really see why it's necessary, because they ask questions like, ‘Were you drinking?’ when they already know that you were," Fisher said. "There’s already a record that you did. So I don't really know what the point of that is. It seems like it’s only meant to scare and confuse people."

Fisher and Warner both noted that disciplinary action against other alcohol-related infractions, like drinking in a dorm room or publicly carrying alcohol around, are justified. However, they both agreed a student in danger should always be granted amnesty immediately, especially considering the traumatic experience of hospitalization.

“I feel like it should almost always be amnesty, like when would it? I don't feel like you deserve to be punished for harming yourself ever,” Fisher said.

Learning about amnesty

Warner felt guilty that she put her friend in a difficult situation after realizing the amount of consequences her friend would face after receiving help. This uncertainty surrounding what would happen after calling 911 stemmed from her lack of knowledge about amnesty, she said.

Northwestern introduces the Amnesty Through Responsibility protocol during the pre-TND online course given to first-years students the summer before arriving on campus. Pre-TNDs, which are the precursor to the Wildcat Welcome True Northwestern Dialogue program, educate students on various topics concerning safety and University policy – including drinking alcohol, mental health and hazing. During Wildcat Welcome, peer advisors are also required to inform students about the amnesty protocol.

McCormick second-year Isaac Sun said that fully grasping the concept of amnesty as a first-year seemed difficult, given how dense with information pre-TNDs can be and how busy the Wildcat Welcome schedule is. With the pre-TND, he believed it would have been more effective if the alcohol module focused more on Northwestern’s approach to alcohol – the amnesty policy and other useful information – in the 30-minute video.

“I don't think the University can be dishing out so much information and expect people to consume all of it," Sun said. "I vaguely remember that in the alcohol pre-TND module, the part that described amnesty was stuck in the middle right when people probably weren't paying attention."

Despite some students’ confusion over the amnesty protocol, Christain claimed that gaining amnesty is as easy as the phrase “call, stay and cooperate” for both the friends calling for help and the friend in danger. He added that NU students might feel pressured to keep their records clean given the academic rigor of the University, and that amnesty can protect students from this while keeping them safe.

“I think one of the cultural pieces of Northwestern is that because we have a lot of high-achieving students, they're terrified of anything being a blemish on their record,” Christain said. “It's really important to understand that you're all humans and you make mistakes.”

Still, Warner is skeptical about how the process works. She expressed her support for the principles behind the protocol, but remains hesitant about its application in practice.

“I think the idea of amnesty is such a good idea and that it’s advertised to be such a good idea. But I think giving amnesty to the people who are calling should just be the basis,” Warner said. “The real thing should be giving amnesty to the person that’s been called for. The fact that they don’t get immediate amnesty is crazy to me.”

*Names have been changed to preserve anonymity and protect the privacy of our sources.