Disciplinary immunity: a baby step toward alcohol reform

The first time I called security on an intoxicated student was earlier this year. For those of you who have read my previous pieces (all three of you), you’ll know that it happened in Heights, when I stumbled upon an unresponsive student alone in the bathroom. In that moment, it was undeniably the right thing to do.

Still, that didn’t stop me from hesitating as I was dialing the number. Maybe I’m a shitty person because I thought for a single second that I should just let him work it out on his own. However, it’s a sentiment I’ve always had at Colby when I or someone else has gone overboard: no matter how bad it is now, it will only be worse if you’re taken to the hospital.

While I personally have never made the storied Saturday night journey to MaineGeneral, many a friend has gone over the details. After being checked out and written up by security, you’re driven to the hospital on your dime, kept under observation, and while you may think that leaving with your bill (and ticket if you’re underage) in hand will be the end of your odyssey, you can bet you’ll be receiving an email from Dean Johnston on Monday morning. That meeting will almost surely lead to further sanctions.

When I visited my younger brother, Matthew, at Hamilton College this past fall break, we went out on a Saturday night. While we were walking around, we came across a scene all too common at Colby: some poor freshman who had one-shot-too-many being loaded up in an ambulance. Reflexively, I said to Matthew, “Looks like he’s got a date with the Dean,” to which Matthew replied with an incredulous, “Why do you say that?”

At Hamilton College, the administration has not instituted policies that involve the Dean of Students when a night goes awry. While overly intoxicated Continentals may have to deal with hospital costs and police fines, if they or another student call security, then both are given immunity from disciplinary actions.

As a student who has taken care of friends in the early hours of numerous Sunday mornings, it’s often very hard to call security on an intoxicated student. Of course, as someone who’s received rudimentary medical training and has some experience with drinking (surprise), I would certainly call security if they were exhibiting signs of alcohol poisoning, but it would be my last choice. As far as I can tell, many times people just need a few hours doing the Technicolor yawn in a nearby receptacle, a couple Advil, a lot of water, and some sleep.

However, often the students who get the most drunk are those with little experience drinking. And when they are incapacitated, who is left to care for them? Other inexperienced drinkers, who are most often first year students. This distinction is especially important because freshman year is a time of unprecedented vulnerability. After all, if the drunk person in question is a roommate, a friend or a significant other, having them wake up to numerous bills and disciplinary actions caused by your fearful actions could have negative consequences for your relationship with them. This could potentially lead students to delay getting help in times of real danger.

While I have written extensively about this school’s alcohol policies in the past, I cannot stress this enough: Colby needs to rethink how it deals with drinking. Indulging (and over-indulging) is an inevitable part of the Colby experience, not just because we endure six-month winters in rural Maine, but because this is college. This is an important time in our lives, as it is our first chance to utilize our newfound freedoms to experiment and explore. And like anyone embarking on a new adventure, students are going to make mistakes.  Now, the Administration can make rules and regulations where they ban hard alcohol or outlaw open containers or discipline underage drinkers, and then go on to believe they have solved the problem. However, the reality is that they have merely pushed the activity underground.

As the historian George Santayana said, “Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” When Prohibition swept across America, the alcohol didn’t disappear. Instead, it went underground and unregulated, leading to the growth of organized crime and deaths due to shoddy alcohol. While I doubt the mob or moonshine are coming to Colby, we must see the parallel dangers. When student drinking goes underground, it makes it less likely students will seek help when things go wrong. It also gives security less utility to do their jobs, as they are not always able to see the people who are in truly bad shape. In essence, these policies create a secretive drinking culture that does little to protect students.

But I digress. While getting rid of college disciplinary actions for underage students is a small change, it’s a step in the right direction. By granting immunity to students who make mistakes but are responsible in seeking help, students will be more willing to ask for the help they need. Likewise, with more transparency, the far-reaching detriments of Colby’s alcohol policies can become visible, allowing us to have an honest conversation about alcohol on campus. Then maybe, just maybe, we can finally have some frank conversations.

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