I have a soft-spot as a hearing officer for students who come into my office with alcohol-related violations. Once upon a time, I was given a second chance after a pretty serious alcohol violation during my first year at St. Lawrence, and it was the conversation that I had with my VP & Dean of Students, and now mentor and friend, Cissy Petty, that set me on a course to this point in my life. Everyone has defining moments in their lives that shape them in innumerable ways. This was one of those moments for me, so I always try to make an effort to have similar conversations with students when they come and see me for alcohol violations ranging from being in the presence of alcohol (for under 21 year old students) to alcohol transports.
We recently implemented a new policy at Siena called “Welfare of the Community” which, in essence, states that if a student contacts Public Safety or a Residential Life staff member to request assistance for him/herself or for a friend, the student that called will not be subject to disciplinary action through our code of conduct, regardless of their own actions (i.e. consumption of alcohol).
I could not be happier that this policy was put into effect. We’d been doing this in practice since I arrived at Siena, but to see it made into an official policy in our student handbook was a positive step forward in my mind. Referring students through the code of conduct system for doing the right thing and calling Public Safety or Res. Life if there is a student in danger not only isn’t fair, it continues the age-old image of Public Safety and Res. Life as “bad guys” who are out to “bust people.” In addition, Siena is the type of institution that, rightly so, prides itself on being a close-knit community. We want our students to be comfortable asking for help, regardless of the issue. This policy helps to demystify the role of Public Safety and Res. Life while also allowing us to ensure student safety.
This policy is NOT a “free pass” for our students, as all students involved with the incident will be required to meet with a hearing officer, but the policy means that they simply won’t be formally charged. This has the added benefit of allowing hearing officers to engage and have intentional conversations without the student being preoccupied worrying about charges, sanctions, and other disciplinary action. After having done almost 50 hearings already this year, I have made sure to highlight this new policy when talking with students. So far, the reactions have been extremely positive from our students, ranging from “Wow, so Public Safety won’t arrest me?” (note: our public safety department doesn’t have the ability to arrest people….more work to be done on clarifying roles it seems) to “My friend was in rough shape once and we were afraid to tell our RA since we had all been drinking.”
Critics of “amnesty” type policies often say that these policies only encourage continued underage drinking. There are a few things that are problematic with this statement. First, students are drinking well before entering college. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism published the results of a 16 year study (1991-2007) in January 2009 noting that the median age of initiation of drinking is 14.06, with 23.8% of high school students having reported consuming their first drink before the age of 13. With students starting to drink well before the traditional age of first year college students, the role of student affairs professionals should focus on education about alcohol, rather than severe sanctions that may not have any impact on students, some of whom have already had experiences with alcohol for 4-5 years. Second, if students wants to drink, they are going to drink; the threat of a sanction be damned. Anyone who doubts this should go on a tour with their institutions Public Safety or Residential Life staff on a weekend. Underage consumption is occurring despite students knowing what sanctions await them if documented. At Siena, RAs and Residence Directors share information related to our policies in floor meetings, at programs, and when meeting with students for conduct hearings. Taking it a step further, the staff in our Dean of Students office meet with every single student athlete on campus to go over policies, and meet with many student organizations to share similar information. I am reasonably confident in stating that students know underage drinking is illegal and that there are consequences associated with it, and yet, the number of situations being documented reflects that underage drinking is still happening.
I would be interested to know how many of you out there have policies similar to our “Welfare of the Community.” Are you a supporter or opponent of such policies? Dialogue is welcome, as I know this is a hot button issue for many of our institutions, and we all have different takes on this topic.
 United States. Department of Health & Human Services. National Institute of Health. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. (2009). Trends in underage drinking in the united states, 1991-2007 (NIAAA Surveillance Report #86). Retrieved from http://www.niaaa.nih.gov/AboutNIAAA/NIAAASponsoredPrograms/Documents/Underage07.pdf