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The newspaper of The Johns Hopkins University September 26, 2005 | Vol. 35 No. 4
Alcohol Use Examined at Homewood

Stricter penalties, education initiatives are planned

By Greg Rienzi
The Gazette

A university task force has completed a comprehensive look into alcohol use among Johns Hopkins undergraduates at Homewood, and developed a series of recommendations that seeks to reduce the incidences of alcohol abuse and its often detrimental outcomes.

With student alcohol use an increasingly critical issue facing colleges nationwide, the university wanted to closely examine its own practices and determine where efforts can be redoubled to address an issue that plays a role in the majority of nonacademic discipline incidents and contributes to poor academic performance.

Susan Boswell, dean of student life, chaired the 20-member task force that included faculty, staff and students. The group, which worked intensely throughout the summer, had the broad charge to review current literature on alcohol abuse, binge drinking and underage drinking on college campuses and to conduct a comprehensive analysis of university protocols, policies and practices that relate to alcohol use. Specifically, the task force examined education initiatives, disciplinary violations, health center and counseling center referrals, residence hall procedures and communication with students and parents.

Binge drinking is commonly defined as five or more drinks in a row for men and four or more drinks in a row for women in a two-hour period.

"We wanted to take the opportunity to look at this issue of alcohol use in depth — to define the problem, look at things nationally and find out what is working and what isn't," Boswell said. "The majority of our students who choose to drink are responsible about their use of alcohol, but there is a significant number of students who aren't. It's not much different here than it is nationwide, but what might be a little different is that because of the intensity of the curriculum here at Johns Hopkins, so at times goes the intensity of the socializing."

Boswell said that while the task force found that many proactive policies were already in place at JHU, it became clear that the university needed to revamp its overall efforts.

The task force's final report, released earlier this month, recommends the strengthening of sanctions pertaining to the student conduct code, the enhancement of educational/outreach efforts aimed at responsible drinking and the creation of more on-campus activities designed to attract a broad range of students.

Other recommendations include the development of a party registration protocol for on-campus and off-campus events sponsored by recognized student organizations; new educational approaches, such as placing around campus mannequins wearing shirts with responsible-drinking slogans; and the establishment of a board of students and staff to oversee peer education programs, identify volunteers to remain sober at parties, sponsor an alcohol management program and recruit students to share their stories of overcoming alcohol abuse.

In addition, the task force recommended that resident advisers visit each student room during the first few weeks of classes and spend time talking about alcohol misuse and the potential health, social and disciplinary consequences.

The task force's review of historical disciplinary data revealed an often too lenient counseling-based system that sometimes allowed for multiple incidents without a significant response, such as a fine or suspension.

In response, a new "three-strike system" has been implemented this fall. This system applies not only to alcohol misuse but to any other violation of the Student Conduct Code. A first violation will result in a written warning and any other educational/therapeutic intervention deemed appropriate. A second violation will result in a fine and parental notification. A third violation during a 12-month period will result in suspension from the university.

Previously, there was no specific standard for parental notification. Now, parents will be notified of any second disciplinary violation occurring within a 12-month period and clearly told of the ramifications of a third violation.

"Where we really felt we could do more was getting parents to be partners in this effort to curb alcohol abuse," Boswell said. "We traditionally have contacted parents when something of a major nature occurred, but chronic things and low-level incidents didn't reach them. With the new code in place, it is our hope that problems will not be allowed to escalate."

Boswell said that the task force dismissed the creation of a "dry campus" but rather recommended an increase in the number of on-campus events where alcohol use was permitted, albeit strictly regulated and monitored.

"We are of the mind that on-campus events where alcohol is served are typically safer, as we can better control the situation, and students do not have to get behind the wheel of a car," Boswell said. "In the ideal world, everyone who comes here will be responsible, and if they do drink, do so within reasonable limits. What still happens too frequently, however, is drinking for the sole purpose of getting drunk, and that is what worries us the most."

Boswell said that the task force will continue to meet on a monthly basis to monitor the effectiveness of the initiatives and programs that have been put in place and to be positioned to make new recommendations as appropriate.

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