Emerson's medical amnesty policy needs overhaul

by Editorial Board / Beacon Staff • January 21, 2016

At issue: Task force created to reassess medical amnesty policy.

Our take: There is truth in criticism of its current form.

In 2009 Emerson finally added a medical amnesty policy to its student code of conduct handbook, a move lauded by the community. At the time, it seemed like a positive change that would foster greater trust between residents and administration. After all, students were under the impression that the Office of Housing and Residence Life was finally closing a gap of misunderstanding in regards to underage drinking. For most community members on campus, there was a desire for a policy that would no longer punish mistakes and innocence, but rather provide leniency. This kind of traditional amnesty policy is essential to encouraging student reporting of alcohol- and drug-related incidents, consequently improving campus safety. It has now become apparent that the policy lacks comprehension and real value for students in the residence halls.

The current medical amnesty policy starts out by stating its foremost allegiance to the students, claiming their safety is the administration’s chief concern. However, it is no wonder campus is rife with complaints about the actual execution of this policy during real incidents. There is a disconnect between what the title implies and what students will wind up experiencing. Amnesty is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as, “a decision that a group of people will not be punished.” The current guidelines do not seem to contain amnesty of any kind. Both an individual seeking help for oneself or help for someone else will be subject to a formal review by OHRL staff. And while he/she may be exempt from a fine or disciplinary action, there is no exemption from a letter sent to guardians or referral to Alcohol and Other Drugs education and/or ECAPS. In fact, the policy only guarantees that administration will view seeking amnesty as an act of good judgement, making the individual “not deserving of typical disciplinary sanctions.” This is hardly enough to convince students to report alcohol incidents.

Four out of five college students drink alcohol, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, and for many, the beginning months at school mark their first time binge drinking. When intoxication spills to the brink of alcohol poisoning, this is scary for students who’ve never dealt with the dangers of being too drunk. Students shouldn’t be reluctant to call for help in these situations—they’re new to this. But there’s a clear disconnect between how Emerson advertises its amnesty services, and its de facto implementation. The fear of consequences, ranging from disciplinary actions to towering ambulance costs, causes some students to refrain from calling for emergency medical services. Medical amnesty programs are intended to address this dilemma. It should increase the likelihood of students asking for a hand, not deter it. Students should feel they can trust the institution to keep them safe, as the core of these policies is to protect students from liability and prioritize safety. No one should be punished for doing the responsible thing. As a community, students’ health should always come first—medical amnesty should never be denied to a student in need. 

Other schools have already implemented effective medical amnesty policies that help students get the attention they deserve. Our friends across the river at Harvard have been utilizing these policies since at least 2010. Isabel Kaplan, a student at the time, wrote in the Daily Beast, “They sat us down around a long table and told us that no matter what, no matter how drunk or sick we got, if we called an ambulance, were picked up by Harvard University Police Department, were taken to the University Health Services infirmary or even to Mount Auburn Hospital, we would not get in trouble. We would have to attend a meeting with our Resident Dean, but our parents would not be notified. This is Harvard’s amnesty policy.”  Not only does this provide safety for the average student who had one bad night, but it provides powerful resources for students who may be spiraling towards addiction. Northeastern University has a similarly effective medical amnesty policy to which Emerson could emulate. Under the school’s policy, both individuals seeking assistance for his/herself and for a friend will be exempt from any kind of disciplinary action. 

A revamped system wouldn’t give free passes to those who abuse the rule or are in need of help beyond the school’s in-place CHOICE program. A proper medical amnesty policy that lives up to its name should not only help those who use it, but also educate students so it doesn’t need to be employed. When it gets to the point where someone calls for help, he/she is not trying to exploit the good-will of the rule—they simply are scared.  

Though the seven-year-old policy was at the time a step in the right direction, after nearly a decade and several re-examinations, its definition of “amnesty” is starting to show its age. Like we wrote last week, procedures are made for revision. With the AOD task force seeming to understand that what it advertises isn’t what students are getting, perhaps we’ll finally get what we’re being promised.