SGA moves to reduce penalty for alcohol offenses

by Beacon Staff • November 12, 2008

The Student Government Association has passed a motion that would encourage on-campus students to seek medical assistance after drinking too much, rather than fear an alcohol violation.

The motion was passed unanimously on Oct. 28, and, if approved by Dean of Students Ronald Ludman, will lessen some punishments and remove others for students who request help during their first alcohol-related offense.

"We just wanted to make sure people didn't die in their rooms because they were afraid to seek help," said SGA President Scott Fisher.

"A lot of other schools have policies that you can seek medical help without fear."

Currently, if a student is a first-time offender for drinking alcohol, the punishments could include a $50 fine, a letter sent to the offender's parents and enrollment in an alcohol education class.

"If while under the influence of drugs or alcohol a student fears for their own or a friend's health or safety, they may seek help from a Resident Advisor, Resident Director, Public Safety Officer or local medical professionals without either student receiving disciplinary probation from the college due to the college's drug/alcohol policy as long as this is their first time voluntarily seeking medical help in this circumstance," the motion reads.

Fisher points out the punishments listed in the handbook are the minimum; if a student drank enough alcohol to require hospitalization, the punishments are usually more severe. A student who was sent to the hospital for alcohol-related illness often receives one year of disciplinary probation, even if they had never received a violation before.

In the SGA's motion, disciplinary probation is defined as a punishment which could include "ineligibility to participate in college activities, athletics, or events and/or hold student leadership positions."

"We just wanted to put safety first over worrying about not getting on a trip," said Fisher, referring to school events such as the Emerson trip to Montreal.

Fisher said he will meet with Ludman Nov. 14 to discuss the change. Ludman was unavailable for comment.

Fisher said he decided to attempt a policy change after a student recounted to him an incident when the fear of punishment prevented a student from seeking medical intervention.

After Fisher heard the story, SGA surveyed 189 students about the alcohol policy. A sizable majority of respondents, 83 percent, said disciplinary action would stop them from seeking help in the event of a medical emergency involving alcohol.

Deborah Engler, coordinator of wellness education for Emerson College, and conduct officer Brad Hinton were asked to research the policy of students willingly coming forward to seek medical help, also known as the medical amnesty policy or the Good Samaritan policy.

The policy has been implemented at other colleges such as Cornell University, but Engler said the results have been inconclusive as to whether the policy lowered student drinking.

"I came to the conclusion that it is a meaningful policy," Engler said. "At this point, we're trying to understand how [the policy] is relevant to Emerson."

She noted Emerson's increased security makes it different from other schools, where drunk students could be snuck in and out of dormitories more easily.

While the issue isn't black and white, Engler approved of the fact that the issue is being discussed. "It's a really good first step," she said.

Emerson RA John Keane said he agrees with the motion.

"The reason we're here as RAs is to keep people safe," he said. "I am for it." Keane, a sophomore double-majoring in political communication and marketing communication, said he hopes if the policy is approved, the only changes will be positive ones. "It is going to affect the number of kids getting help," he said.

Student reaction to the SGA decision seems to be similarly positive. "[Students] won't be afraid to go get help," said Michael Passalacqui, a freshman media studies major.

Passalacqui, who lives on the fifth floor in the Piano Row dormitory, doesn't think the amount of student drinking will increase or decrease if the policy goes into effect. "I don't think [students] will drink more because of it," he said.

Madalyn Tomaszewski, a sophomore political communication major, agreed the policy will benefit Emerson's student body. "It's RAs working with students to help them," she said.

Tomaszewski also said she thinks the amount of student drinking will stay the same.

"I think they'll be more mature," she said. "They'll feel safer coming home afterwards."