Thirsty for a Reasonable Alcohol Policy

The College’s war on alcohol continues unabatedly; zero tolerance seems to be the order of the day.

Over the past year, six Greek organizations have been put on probation for violating the cumbersome rules laid down by the Social Event Management Procedures bureaucracy, and hundreds of students have been picked up by Safety and Security or Hanover Police patrols and then disciplined by the College or the New Hampshire courts.

However, does anyone seriously believe that the SEMP rules are limiting alcohol consumption on campus?

Either today’s students were specially selected for admission because they can get hammered on one cup of Keystone, or perhaps it’s time to accept that Dartmouth students also focus their brilliance on getting around SEMP’s regulations.

This cat-and-mouse game would have humor value if Dartmouth’s harsh policies did not do lasting harm to the lives of young men and women, and if enforcement weren’t so painfully expensive. While older alums can name the one person who was the College’s campus policeman, today’s Safety & Security force has an annual budget of almost $2 million and is staffed by the equivalent of 36 full-time employees.

For reference purposes, the Town of Hanover (pop. 10,850, including Dartmouth students) has a police force of 35 employees. The Hanover Police Department covers a wide geographic area and also deals with serious crimes.

To justify its posture on alcohol, the administration declares that its hands are tied by an obligation to respect federal, state and local laws.

Let’s examine how another institution of higher learning interprets its obligations under the law. The July/August, 2006 edition of the Yale Alumni Magazine describes a different approach to alcohol: “Yale’s policy on underage drinking. … says that students must abide by state and local laws and university rules. … In practice, though, administrators spend little time policing routine underage alcohol use.”

In Yale’s 2006 Report of the Committee on Alcohol Policy, the committee concludes that “College regulations that focus on student safety as the first priority (e.g., students are not punished when they drink so excessively that they are transported to University Health Services or a hospital emergency room) are praiseworthy and effective, and they should be retained.”

In an interview last week, Yale’s confident President Richard Levin even made light of Yale’s approach: “our own police force of about 80 officers… are trained to deal with students and treat some issues with — ahem — a more liberal approach than other forces.”

The New Haven Police force’s relationship with Yale is typical of relations between most municipal police forces and universities. For offenses like alcohol use, the New Haven Police will not intervene without a request from Yale, and New Haven officers do not patrol the streets of the Yale campus looking for alcohol violations.

In contrast, Dartmouth Safety and Security often turns students over to the Hanover Police. Additionally, Safety and Security does not transport incapacitated students to DHMC in its own vehicles, so when Dick’s House determines that a student is incapacitated, the College calls for the Town of Hanover ambulance — an action that almost always elicits an arrest by the Hanover Police Department.

Once in the hands of the Hanover Police, a student confronts a choice between a court hearing that usually leads to a fine of between $250 and $300, an Internet-retrievable court record and a possible 30-day loss of driving privileges when the court automatically reports excessive consumption to the DMV or participation in the town’s day-long “diversion” program at a cost to the student of $400.

What a difference from Yale’s policy, which involves no sanctions whatsoever for underage drinking, leads to counseling only in the case of incapacitation, includes university discipline only in association with other offences, and never leads to police arrest and prosecution.

Dartmouth’s and Yale’s policies are borne out in their respective federal crime reports.

Though Yale has twice as many students as Dartmouth and 30 percent more undergraduates, in the 2003-2005 period, the last years for which federal figures are available, only 131 Yale students were disciplined by the university for alcohol-related violations. At Dartmouth, 754 students were so punished.

Viewed against this background, it seems that the Dartmouth administration is trying to have it both ways. While publicly wishing for a lower drinking age, the College actually pushes for the harshest possible treatment of students.

Memo to the administration: Change direction on alcohol enforcement. In the interest of our students, please adopt Yale’s tolerant, no-sanction model. Education and safety should be our goals at Dartmouth, not disciplinary actions and police records.

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