Most Colleges Don’t Take Legal Action Against Students Who Break Alcohol Laws, Study Finds

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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) – At most colleges, campus police refer students involved in alcohol-related incidents to school officials for discipline rather than taking legal action, according to a study of 343 U.S. schools.

After such an incident, students are generally not referred to the campus health center for alcohol screening or intervention, researchers led by Debra H. Bernat from University of Maryland in College Park found.

For the study, they asked directors of campus police or security to complete a survey regarding their usual practices following serious, underage and less-serious alcohol incidents on and off campus.

Even for serious or underage alcohol violations, which likely reflect illegal behaviour, only one-third of colleges reported consistently issuing criminal charges or a citation to the drinker.

For serious off-campus incidents, approximately 40 per cent of colleges reported consistently referring students to an alcohol education program and offering counseling or treatment, compared to 16 per cent for on-campus incidents, the authors report in Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research.

Larger public schools and schools located in small towns were more likely to take disciplinary action following drinking incidents than smaller private schools and those in large cities.

Attitude made a difference too, the authors report. Colleges that reported that student drinking was a major problem, as opposed to not a major problem, were more likely to consistently refer students involved in serious drinking incidents to the health center.

Low citation rates may undermine alcohol enforcement efforts by removing more severe consequences for drinking, the researchers suggest, but they acknowledge that it is still unclear what actions are best for curbing alcohol-related problems on college campuses.

The report is a step toward understanding how campus security departments respond to alcohol incidents, they write.

“It tells us just enough to suggest the next study or several studies,” said Robert F. Saltz, a senior scientist at the Prevention Research Center in Oakland, California who wasn’t involved in the research.

One way to strategically decrease alcohol incidents on campus is to strengthen prevention enforcement measures, rather than reactionary enforcement, Saltz told Reuters Health.

For example, rather than waiting for a serious injury to occur at a fraternity party and then disciplining the entire fraternity, a college could strengthen its proactive enforcement by routinely breaking up larger parties and citing the host or strengthening its traffic violation enforcement on nights and weekends, which would help prevent dangerous incidents, he said.

The study suggests there is still a lot of room to assess how college campuses address alcohol violations, said Sion Kim Harris, a substance abuse researcher at Harvard Medical School in Boston who was not part of the new report.

“As (the authors) discuss, given that really mostly what campus security police do is refer these incidents to internal departments versus criminal charges, it’s really important then what these other departments will do,” which this study does not address, Harris told Reuters Health.

On-campus crime reports are declining in general but the number of arrests for alcohol and drug violations is on the rise, which may be due to more violations or stricter enforcement over the years, she said.

“What we think is happening is colleges are getting more strict about enforcing their policies,” Harris said.

Looking at a college’s website, and specifically its alcohol policy and any statistics it has available, can give parents an idea of the attitudes at different schools, Harris said. She also suggested families visit

“Just as a parent I would recommend that parents really review alcohol and drug policies with children so there’s an understanding of what are the supposed consequences,” she said. “Even though the level of enforcement of these things may not be so great, it’s still important that students know.”

SOURCE: Alcoholism: Clinical and Experimental Research, online July 17, 2014.

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