Residence Life alcohol policy is counterproductive, creates more problems than solutions


Last fall, a student was talking with his RA in the hallway, and invited the RA into his room to continue the conversation and hang out for a bit. At some point during their conversation, the RA spotted an empty case of Rainier next to his fridge, and she wrote him up. It was the first week of school, and she felt she had to establish herself as an authority figure in order to instill the message that drinking in a residence hall is not acceptable behavior.

Needless to say, their relationship was severed within the first week of their eight months of living together. When describing the situation to me, the RA involved explained, “what I did was the right thing for my job, but certainly not my community… I was immediately alienated and had no hope of being someone that he or any of his friends could talk to, should an actual problem arise.”

I asked several RAs to describe what they saw as the purpose of their position, and received a range of responses. Many RAs emphasized keeping their community safe; others discussed creating an inclusive community for all, or teaching people how to live cohesively with one another.

One veteran RA put it quite succinctly: “I think the purpose of an RA is to facilitate a supportive and compassionate community, in a way that people feel safe pushing their own boundaries.”

Interestingly, not one of them discussed enforcing the integrity code as their top priority.

Before I continue, I’d like to note that I am by no means advocating for a culture of underage drinking on this campus. Rather, I’d like to see policies that reflect an increase in consistency between the priorities of the administration and the priorities of ResLife.

What if we created a system in which RAs had no authority to write students up? Instead of policing for breaches of the integrity code, they could focus on fulfilling the roles they unanimously believe to be most important: facilitating the formation of safe and inclusive communities.

There is a fine line between an RA doing their job of protecting his or her community and creating problems out of a controlled environment. Instead of embodying what they believe to be top priority, in practice, many RAs use their position to justify snooping on their peers. Residents are left feeling degraded, inferior, and helpless. How can an RA successfully create a safe, responsible community, while also enforcing our University’s integrity code, when they are forced to go looking for trouble?

Within a few days of being on campus, first-year students are presented with the “6 Pack of Common Sense” workshop as part of orientation.

Over the recent Parent’s Weekend on campus, the University also hosted a “parent version” of the talk. Both conveyed a similar message: we understand college students are going to drink, but we would like to inform the students about the effects of alcohol in order to promote responsible decision making.

On the surface, it seems as though the University is taking a productive and reasonable approach towards combating unsafe alcohol consumption on campus.

Programs such as the newly implemented “Call for Help” policy (essentially a Good Samaritan policy, encouraging students to call security without penalty if a student is in need of medical attention due to intoxication or other drug use) and the “6 Pack of Common Sense” workshops seem to acknowledge that drinking will occur on campus, but the University has failed in its consistency.

On one hand, we are presented with a lenient, understanding message, but on the other, RAs are trained to seek out alcohol violations while on rounds.

Again, I am certainly not condoning underage alcohol consumption. I’m taking the approach that the University appears to subscribe to, as evidenced by its alcohol safety and education policies: we’re in college. It is inevitable.

In my experience here, ResLife has created divided communities, pitting the residents against their RAs, RCCs, and RDs. RAs are seen as police figures, and are alienated from their residents as soon as an RA writes one of them up for a conduct violation.

One of the conduct coordinators on campus, Krystle Cobian, explained that, “the purpose of an RA is to document, observe, and approach wrongful behavior respectfully.”

There is a great amount of ambiguity tied to the term “respectfully.” The job of an RA is certainly a difficult one—trying to balance the relationship between friend and leader/policy enforcer.

RAs are trained to go on scheduled rounds, which double as “community outreach” (a set time when an RA is in the building and available to talk) and safety checks.

Every public space—lounges, bathrooms, hallways, kitchens, etc.—is checked. But, along with rounds, RAs are also supposed to be on the lookout for disruptive behavior. They are trained to use their best judgment in determining what is disruptive.

According to Cobian, security has received about five calls this semester in response to a student in need of medical attention due to alcohol abuse. Under the new “Call for Help” policy, neither the caller nor the victim will receive a conduct violation, so long as both complete “educational assignments in lieu of conduct sanctions.”

Despite the few calls seeking medical attention, there are a staggering number of write-ups every weekend due to alcohol violations. The number of alcohol-related incidents reported varies per weekend: Cobian said there could be as few as three or four, or as many as nine or 10. When looking at individuals involved, that could range from 3-50+. Compared with the five calls for help placed this semester, there seems to be an incongruity between the number of students needing help and the number of students written up.

It appears quite obvious that the vast majority of students written up are written up for drinking in a casual, controlled setting.

One may argue that the write-ups prevented an unsafe situation from occurring, and, while that may be true, there is also the flip side to this argument.

Last semester, an RA knocked on a student’s door in the evening after hearing a few voices, to find a group of five students sitting around a basketball game, each with a beer in hand.

She acknowledged that her intentions were just “to check up on the students.” But, because she observed a few beer cans in the room, she was forced to write the students up out of fear that if it got back to her RD that she hadn’t, she would face punishment herself.

It is better to educate and inform the student body about safe and responsible habits than to prohibit alcohol entirely. The latter approach forces students to drink quickly and heavily in their rooms in order to avoid being written up. Or worse, it forces students off campus to consume alcohol, where resources such as RAs, Security, and fellow peers are not available to help, should an unsafe situation arise.

The prohibitive approach may be more necessary at a university such as Dartmouth, where 120 students in the fall 2010 term received some sort of medical attention for intoxication.

Ideally, Puget Sound’s number should be zero. We should strive for the fewest incidents of sexual assault and fewest hospital visits that are conceivably possible. At the same time, we seem to be addressing a problem that does not already exist.

Institutions our size or smaller have a much smaller number of students in need of medical attention due to intoxication per semester—five is a fraction of other small liberal arts schools. Puget Sound is clearly not a “party school,” yet the administration is aggressive with our alcohol policy as if this is the case. Why not create a more collaborative approach?

I want to stress that being a college student does not exempt us from state laws. It is illegal for an individual to consume alcohol under the age of 21.

Instead, I would like to see the University extend its approach toward alcohol awareness and safety to the RA level. Instead of requiring RAs to police and enforce, when an RA observes the presence of alcohol in situations that aren’t genuinely disruptive, maybe the RA could be trained to counsel and educate.