In College, Drinking Laws Don't Mean Jack

In College, Drinking Laws Don’t Mean Jack

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Remember that time in college when you got slapped with a citation for underage drinking? No? That’s probably because it didn’t happen. According to a new study, college students who get busted for breaking alcohol laws usually get off with minimal punishment. Because that’s what college is for, right?

Punishable by Slap on the Wrist

Researchers from the University of Minnesota School of Public Health studied 343 colleges across the US and tracked the consequences when students violated drinking laws. They found that students rarely got cited, arrested or charged for their infractions and were unlikely to have appear in court. Instead, they were usually referred to their university’s disciplinary system rather than dealt with via law enforcement. And college discipline more often than not means the bare minimum the school can get away with, liability-wise. Colleges would rarely send students to the school health center for an alcohol screening or intervention, much less phone parents to let them know Tiffany had tried to illegally purchase a handle of Smirnoff.

At my university, the conventional wisdom was that the campus police existed to protect you from the city police. The closest thing to punishment I ever got happened during freshman year after our big spring concert. Having commandeered our suite’s bottle of Jack Daniels, I passed out on the main lawn at 3 p.m. in the middle of Third Eye Blind’s nostalgia-inducing set. After getting dragged half-conscious and puking to the health center, where I received a totally magical IV, I was summoned to the Dean’s office for a “chat” about alcohol abuse. All I recall from our conversation was that his father was a scotch man. I don’t even think he even mentioned that I’d broken a law.

Power Hour, Anyone?

Do such light punishments make students more likely to binge drink? Hell yeah! I mean, if the worst that can happen is a sit-down with the friendly old Dean, why not get shitfaced every Friday? The disconnect between what’s legal and what’s technically allowed gives students an unrealistic sense of entitlement and invincibility. Darin Erickson of the School of Public Health agreed. “This approach, while may be considered fair or compassionate, may possibly undermine enforcement efforts by removing the severity of consequences,” he said.

The study also explored some of the environmental factors that make binge drinking more prevalent on certain campuses. These were basically a no-brainer: easy access to alcohol, fraternity houses, low liquor taxes and big spectator sports all correlated with heavier drinking. But the colleges with the laxest alcohol policies tended to be small private colleges that have mere security squads rather than actual police. The very idea that anyone in one of these little Edens would commit a crime is, of course, unthinkable.

Campus Police + Campus Health Center = A Lovely Couple

While nothing this study turned up is particularly surprising, it does draw attention to a nationwide problem—and maybe a solution.

“Students who are having difficulty with alcohol are likely to come to the attention of campus police or for other disciplinary reasons before they are identified by the health center,” said head researcher Toben Nelson. “We encourage colleges to better integrate their systems, including campus police/security and health centers, so that students who are at-risk can get the services they need, such as evidence-based counseling, brief intervention and treatment.”

Only Time Will Tell…Who Has Alcoholism

That sounds like a noble goal. Still, the normalization of college binge drinking makes it hard to determine whether any given infraction constitutes a real problem. From the vantage point of the Dean’s armchair, it’s hard to separate the wheat from the chaff. Only 10 years later, when the frat boys have outgrown their keg stands and that awkward chick from anthro is still guzzling whiskey from the bottle, do we see where the chips have landed.

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About Author

Erica Larsen AKA Eren Harris blogs at Whitney Calls and Clean Bright Day. Their writing has also been published on Salon, Selfish, Violet Rising and YourTango. They live in Los Angeles with their husband and their enormous cat.