Delaware policy sets example

As one of the top-10 binge drinking schools in the nation, the University of Delaware had the kind of reputation administrators didn’t like to talk about – it was a party school.

Boosted by a $750,000 grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to fight binge drinking, the university’s administrators went on the offensive against alcohol abuse last year. They cracked down on parties and happy hours, and reformed the school’s alcohol code.

Delaware became one of the few schools in the country to institute a policy of contacting the parents of almost every student who violated the school’s alcohol code.

Under legislation signed into law by President Clinton last week, Delaware’s parental notification policy could become the model for colleges across the country, including GW.

Federal law prohibits colleges from disclosing private information about students above age 18. The law allowed schools to contact parents when a student was in danger. Most colleges interpreted the law to mean they could not notify parents about alcohol violations unless a student’s life was threatened. But an amendment to the Higher Education Reauthorization Act, signed by Clinton Wednesday, gives schools the option of contacting the parents of students who break alcohol policies.

GW, like many schools, is considering the new option, said Karen Warren, coordinator of Student Judicial Services at GW.

Warren said GW has not decided yet whether it will implement the new policy. She said the University may adopt a policy, such as Delaware’s, of always contacting parents or may decide on a case-by-case basis if parents should be notified.

Delaware sends a letter to parents after a student’s first alcohol violation, no matter how severe, said Nancy Geist-Giacomini, assistant dean of students for judicial services at Delaware. And many schools are taking a close look at Delaware to see if parental notification is effective.

Geist-Giacomini said it is hard to tell how effective the policy has been after only one year.

“We were hoping (parental notification) would act as a deterrent and maybe some of that is happening, but we still have a lot of students drinking every weekend,” she said. “What we can say is that students haven’t been doing it a second and third time. We’ve had a lot less second- and third-time violators.”

Ryan Cormier, editor in chief of The Review, Delaware’s student-run newspaper, said he believes parental notification is cutting down on freshman drinking. Once freshmen are caught and their parents receive a letter, they are brought back to reality and many do not get caught again.

“It seems to be working, vandalism is down in the dorms,” Cormier said. “But some people don’t think it’s stopping kids from drinking, they’re just getting better at hiding it.”

Binge drinking has become a major issue at schools nationwide after students died of alcohol poisoning last year at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Louisiana State University. Five students died at Virginia schools last year in alcohol-related incidents, including one intoxicated female who fell out the window of her residence hall room.

As a result, the reauthorization bill includes Sen. John Warner’s (R-Va.) amendment allowing colleges to notify parents of students caught violating alcohol policies.

The law also includes a resolution, written by Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.), stating that “colleges and universities across the country must follow the example set by the University of Delaware and begin the daunting task of challenging the culture on campus,” according to The Review.

But opponents of the Warner amendment said it violates students’ privacy rights. They argue students above age 18 should not have personal information disclosed to anyone, including their parents.

Geist-Giacomini said Delaware respects the rights of independent, adult students. She said the school uses financial independence, not age, to determine if students are independent from their parents.

“That’s one of the questions we ask,” she said. “If a student is completely financially independent, then we do not notify their parents.”

Delaware administrators have received more than 650 calls from colleges about its alcohol policies, according to The Review.

“We’re getting a lot of calls from other schools, asking how it’s working,” Geist-Giacomini said. “What I tell them is this is time-intensive. There is a lot of talking to parents who get a letter and call in.”

Cormier said Delaware students, surprisingly, have not protested parental notification.

“There’s been zero student response, we’ve not had one complaint about it,” he said. “Some people think parents are the ones shelling out the big bucks and deserve to know and the school thinks parents are the ones that have real leverage with the kids.”

Geist-Giacomini said more students are telling their parents about their alcohol violations before the school does.

“They know the letter is going home, so they figure they better get on the phone and call mom and dad first,” she said. “Besides the lower numbers, that’s a nice part of it because (students) have good discussions with parents before they get into the judicial process.”

However, a Review editorial last year criticized the school’s alcohol policies, saying students on- and off-campus know the “alcohol culture” remains unchanged despite administrator’s claims.

“The University should concern itself with problem drinkers, whose nights end in hospital visits or vandalism,” the editorial said.

GW Student Association President Carrie Potter has said previously that if GW institutes a policy of telling parents when their children break alcohol policies, then it only should be used in severe cases.

“For me, (parental notification) would have to change student behavior and I’m not sure it would,” Warren said.

No matter which option GW chooses, it has Delaware’s example to study.

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