It is a battle that has been waged for generations: underage college students versus university administrators set to crack down on illegal drinking. Georgetown is no stranger to the ongoing debate, as a Friday e-mail – a recap of university alcohol and drug policy – sent by administrators to students made clear.
“Statistics show that alcohol use in the under-21 population is still widespread, and in fact, because it’s so widespread, it’s natural to think about where this alcohol consumption is occurring,” said Nick DeSantis of Choose Responsibility, a nonprofit group that lobbies for a lower drinking age.
On college campuses, underage drinking is a common occurrence behind locked dorm doors or in off-campus apartments, “where the alcohol itself is the event, and the goal is to drink as much of it as quickly as possible so you can get drunk,” DeSantis said.
Under the Student Code of Conduct, the possession of alcohol or alcohol-related paraphernalia – including beer funnels, beer pong tables and drinking games – is prohibited in student housing, regardless of a student’s age.
Violations are punishable by judicial sanctions that range from fines and essays to prosecution and suspension from the university.
Additionally, Georgetown will notify a student’s parents upon occurrence of a second alcohol-related violation, “out of concern for a student’s health, safety and welfare, and continued participation in the university community,” according to the code.
The policy is not meant to scare students, but to promote students’ health, according to Director of Media Relations Andy Pino.
The current guidelines follow student uproar in 2007 after Georgetown’s alcohol policy was made more stringent, raising concern among students of legal drinking age that their rights were being infringed upon.
And statistics indicate that the problem of drinking on college campuses is on the rise.
From 1998 to 2005, the number of American college students ages 18 to 24 who have taken part in binge drinking – a period of heavy episodic drinking – has increased from 42 to 45 percent, according to a June 2009 report from the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
The same study also found that accidental alcohol-related deaths among college students jumped from 1,440 in 1998 to 1,825 in 2005 – an increase of nearly 27 percent.
In a move that some view as paradoxical, some universities have decided to meet this underage drinking problem head-on by relaxing their university alcohol policies.
While Georgetown does not offer an amnesty policy regarding alcohol consumption, Pino emphasized that a call to Georgetown Emergency Response Medical Service does not mandate disciplinary action by the university.
“The health and safety of our students is an absolute priority for us, and students can be assured that they can call GERMS medical treatment without fear of discipline,” Pino said. “Residence Life staff often follow up with these students, but they do so out of care and concern, not from a disciplinary perspective.”
The current policy, he said, holds that alcohol-related paraphernalia is “inherently risky and unwise” and should be banned in on-campus housing.
Pino did not indicate the possibility of changes to the alcohol policy in the 2010-2011 Student Code of Conduct, which will be available online before the fall semester begins.
But other schools have implemented amnesty policies out of what they regard as concern for students. Mimicking a similar rule which Yale University adopted in 2006, Harvard College in 2009 added to its Student Handbook a drug and alcohol “amnesty policy” with the intention of encouraging underage students to seek medical attention in extreme cases of alcohol- or drug-related emergencies.
Under the policy, a student may bring a friend who is intoxicated or drug-impaired to a hospital or Harvard University Health Services or seek help from a residential life staff member. Neither the student nor the friend will face disciplinary action for using or providing alcohol or drugs, regardless of age or level of intoxication.
The policy goes a step further by stating that failure to seek assistance in an alcohol- or drug-related emergency would be used against students in possible disciplinary actions.
Although Harvard has seen an almost record-breaking high of intoxicated undergraduates seeking hospitalization, Harvard spokesman Kevin Galvin maintained that the numbers reflect a positive change, The Daily Beast reported last week.
“As the amnesty policy has been more widely communicated to students, one might expect a subsequent rise in alcohol-related admissions not because students are drinking more dangerously, but rather because they are being better bystanders, seeking medical care for friends who may have had too much to drink,” he said in the article.
In 2008, a group of college administrators boggled state legislators in drafting a petition to debate the effects of establishing 21 as the legal drinking age.
While it does not argue for a specific policy change, The Amethyst Initiative, led by John McCardell, former president of Middlebury College in Vermont, encourages university presidents to engage in a dialogue about how the 21-year-old mandate might not be working.
“This system is just designed to spark a conversation and act as a catalyst for discussion and debate for alcohol use on college campuses,” DeSantis said.
While the two platforms are not directly related, Choose Responsibly provides staff support for The Amethyst Initiative, he said.
DeSantis said the initiative encourages a frank discussion about underage drinking and seeks to propose possible alternatives to a drinking age, such as education programs for parents.
Since its founding, 135 schools have signed on, including Dartmouth College, Duke University, Johns Hopkins University and Smith College.
Pino said the university does not have plans to take part in the initiative.
“Georgetown is not signing the petition. We are focused on the health, safety and well-being of our students, and we will continue to work at providing a welcoming and safe social environment on campus that respects the law and our students,” he said.