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The Importance of Enforcing Alcohol Rules
By STEPHEN M. GUEST From the issue dated June 1, 2007
Like most parents of college-age children, I was unaware of the federal Drug-Free Schools and Communities Act. It only became significant to me at noon on February 6, 2005, when local police came to our door to tell us that our daughter Kristine, a junior at Quinnipiac University, had died in a snowmobile accident the night before while visiting a friend at another college in upstate New York.
Along with denial and grief, one of my initial reactions was to assume that Kristine must have made some unfortunate decisions that led to the tragedy. My wife, who knew Kristine better than anyone, believed there was more to the story. She was correct.
We learned from New York State police officers who had investigated the snowmobile crash that it had indeed been a preventable tragedy. The campus bordered a lake where students held weekend parties around a bonfire and rode snowmobiles on the ice — a risky activity, given the darkness and the tendency of young people to speed. Exacerbating those risks was the heavy drinking among the students.
Although the state police had repeatedly offered the college assistance in shutting the parties down, such offers were generally not accepted. On the very night of my daughter's accident, both a college-safety officer and an administrator questioned students at the party site — yet the administrator declined to stop either the students' riding of snowmobiles or the excessive underage drinking. Worse, that inaction occurred only a week after another student at the institution died in an alcohol-related truck accident near the campus.
The events described by the investigating state-police officer were subsequently verified by the police report we received. Besides detailing what led to the deaths of Kristine and the intoxicated driver, statements by students and college personnel gave insights into attitudes about campus drinking. The report provided evidence that Kristine had visited a campus that was out of control.
The police report also confirmed that our daughter's actions were in character, as my wife had believed. She was among the last to accept a ride, suggesting hesitation on her part. Postmortem tests of Kristine's blood-alcohol level revealed that she had had little, if anything, to drink. All of those things suggest that she found herself in an unanticipated situation and had tried to avoid the riskiest parts; unfortunately, she resisted only so long and then paid the ultimate price. When her friend and host offered her a ride, he appeared sober to the snowmobile owner and the other students, even though his blood-alcohol level was well above the legal limit. At a party with 50 to 80 other students, Kristine became a victim of the excessive drinking of others even though she had curbed her own involvement.
Like other parents who lose their children in similar circumstances, my wife and I began to question why colleges aren't required to better control their students' activities and prevent such dangerous situations. We were always concerned about campus alcohol use and its consequences for student safety, but Kristine's sad fate compelled us to actively address the issue.
While studying the legal aspects of campus safety, we found the drug-free-schools statute and its 1989 amendments, which required institutions of higher education to deal seriously with campus drinking to qualify for federal support as part of the Higher Education Act of 1965. The 1998 reauthorization of the act included a "sense of Congress," an advisory that urges institutions to provide students with "maximum opportunities" to "live in an alcohol-free environment" and apply a "zero tolerance" policy for the illegal consumption of alcohol — as well as vigorous enforcement of sanctions for those in violation. Congress expressed renewed interest in the issue in the recently enacted STOP (Sober Truth on Preventing Underage Drinking Act) legislation by including a similar statement.
Why, we asked ourselves, with such a strong law has drinking on campuses continued unabated? The answer became increasingly clear: It is because of the lack of effective enforcement by the Education Department.
For colleges to qualify for federal support, including student-loan programs, the law specifies that they must satisfy certain requirements that can be divided into two categories:
Compliance documentation. The documentation requirements include the development of "standards of conduct that clearly prohibit, at a minimum, the unlawful possession, use, or distribution of illicit drugs and alcohol by students and employees on its property or as part of any of its activities"; distribution of that code to students and employees; and "a clear statement that the institution will impose sanctions on students and employees ... and a description of those sanctions."
An institution must then confirm its compliance through biennial reviews and show continued efforts to monitor the program's effectiveness, making necessary adjustments and ensuring that the sanctions required by statute are consistently enforced.
The standards-of-conduct requirement is notable and shows a marked difference from the pre-1989 view toward institutions' responsibility for controlling student drinking. In the 1970s and 80s, many institutions were advised by counsel against becoming involved with campus drinking issues, given the courts' reluctance to find colleges liable for voluntary student behavior. But the 1989 amendment demands that colleges be more accountable.
Consistent enforcement. Congress recognized the importance of enforcing institutional standards of conduct by urging zero tolerance of illegal alcohol consumption and citing it as an objective of the required biennial review. The Education Department also lists consistent enforcement as a requirement for compliance in its published regulations.
The evaluations of institutional-compliance reviews are under the purview of the Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse and Violence Prevention, an independent organization under contract to the Education Department. The center periodically audits a small sample of the biennial reviews to assess performance. But, according to an interview the center published last year with Richard Lucey Jr., an education-program specialist in the Education Department's Office of Safe and Drug-Free Schools, the job of enforcing the regulations that withhold federal moneys "falls under the purview of the Department's Office of Federal Student Aid." He further describes the center's role as one that provides "information and technical assistance" and "some advice and resources campuses may need in developing effective prevention programs." In other words, the center monitors compliance but doesn't have any authority to administer sanctions to institutions that fail to meet standards.
Ensuring that compliance efforts have a positive effect on campuses is even more difficult. That would require the Education Department to not only thoroughly evaluate biennial-review reporting and statistics, but also to monitor campus practices to make sure that reports on compliance efforts were accurate. If the reality on campuses matched the diligent, consistent enforcement likely portrayed in most institutions' self-reported biennial reviews, campus-drinking culture and habits would change. That does not seem to be the case. There are no doubt many discrepancies between campus claims and campus realities.
A fter my wife and I discovered the statute, we made a request to the Education Department to evaluate the compliance of the college where my daughter had died. Receiving no response for six months, I finally asked for assistance from one of my state's U.S. senators, whose office successfully obtained a copy of the college's biennial review.
The discrepancies between the information in that review, which reflected and certified compliance, and the reality on the campus, as described in the police report, were obvious. To name a few:
During the nine months that the Education Department has had notice of such discrepancies, my inquiry has passed through about a half-dozen people and offices. Whether the department will impose any sanctions is uncertain. But officials there seem aware that they need to either do so or else justify how the facts surrounding my daughter's accident demonstrate compliance.
While the Education Department cannot be expected to monitor enforcement on all campuses, it should have a process to investigate when apparent instances of noncompliance are brought to its attention. My recent experience strongly indicates that there is no such process. Funds for compliance monitoring are not specifically appropriated but are included in the Education Department's overall support, so monitoring occurs only to the extent that the department allocates resources to it. Also, as I've noted, compliance monitoring has been delegated to the Higher Education Center, a move that apparently has satisfied department officials that their responsibility for it has been fulfilled. Such an approach may be reflected in the fact that, despite the requirements' and sanctions' being in the law for 17 years, no sanctions have ever been levied under it.
Of course, all colleges must do their part in enforcing the law, as well. They should review the effect that their inadequate enforcement — what I call paper compliance — has on campus attitudes and make changes whenever necessary. The Rights and Responsibilities of the Modern University (Carolina Academic Press, 1999), by Robert D. Bickel and Peter F. Lake, professors at Stetson University College of Law, suggests a model that holds students and administrators jointly responsibility for student safety, including alcohol use. One suggested approach to deal with campus drinking, for example, is to confront "beer bullies" early to ensure that their norms do not become the campus culture. As the authors note, "there are meaningful ways to control and manage alcohol risks other than root-cause solutions, deliberate indifference, or draconian control."
In their 2002 study, Dying to Drink: Confronting Binge Drinking on College Campuses (Rodale Books), Henry Wechs-ler, principal investigator of the Harvard School of Public Health College Alcohol Study, and Bernice Wuethrich, a science writer, recommended comprehensive steps by governments at all levels, colleges, parents, and the liquor industry. Their proposal included many examples where efforts to alter the campus alcohol culture had resulted in positive change, like eliminating alcohol sales at football stadiums and including parents in alcohol-awareness programs aimed at freshmen. Such examples counter the view that campus drinking is inevitable and attempts at control are futile.
Losing a child in an accident that did not need to happen is a parent's worst nightmare. Those of us in such a position must make every effort to hold those responsible accountable. College administrators, in turn, must take all reasonable steps to avoid that nightmare and ensure that it does not turn into their institution's own worst nightmare: the loss of federal funds. Paper compliance is no longer sufficient.
Stephen M. Guest is an accountant with the firm of Blum, Shapiro, & Company, in West Hartford, Conn.http://chronicle.com
Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 53, Issue 39, Page B10
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In loving Memory of Kristine Guest