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Parent notification policies for underage drinking evolve

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College drinking is getting worse, according to researchers at the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. Between 1998 and 2005, the latest period for which figures are available, binge drinking rates increased, more students drove drunk and the number of alcohol-related deaths increased more than 25 percent, from 1,440 to 1,825.

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"The problem is not getting better, but I think it can be turned around," said Ralph Hingson, the director of epidemiology and prevention research at the institute. "Interventions at multiple levels make a difference."

The federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act of 1974 prevents universities from sharing most student information, but it allows them to contact parents if a child's health or safety is at risk. In 1998, the act was amended to give colleges and universities permission to notify parents anytime a student younger than 21 had any alcohol or drug violation.

That legislation was introduced by then-Sen. John Warner after five Virginia college students were killed in alcohol-related incidents in fall 1997, prompting a state investigation. Three were Virginia Tech students who died in two incidents over Halloween weekend.

Deaths at other campuses also have resulted in policy changes and, sometimes, lawsuits. In 2000, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology paid $6 million to settle a wrongful-death lawsuit filed by the parents of a freshman who died of alcohol poisoning after a fraternity party in 1997.

Last year, a University of Kansas freshman died of alcohol poisoning less than two weeks after he was kicked out of campus housing for alcohol violations that his parents knew nothing about. Within months, the university began to notify parents about serious or repeat alcohol violations.

In 1997, the University of Delaware became one of the first schools to implement an "every time" notification policy. School officials say the policy, along with aggressive penalties, has reduced binge drinking on campus and curtailed the university's party-school reputation.

GWU soon followed and enhanced the policy last year, after the death of a student. The school now contacts parents within 24 hours in a serious case and follows up with parents when the student begins an alcohol education program. For a less-serious case, they send parents educational materials.

In the past five years, several schools have joined the movement, including the University of Georgia in 2006 and the University of New Mexico in 2007. In 2008, Tennessee passed a state law that requires all public higher-education institutions to notify parents of alcohol violations.

"There is no magical line here between May of their senior year of high school and college. When do they really become a responsible adult?" said John Zacker, director of student conduct at the University of Maryland, which notifies parents when a student's drinking threatens to get him or her kicked out of the dorms or school.

At the University of Virginia, students are usually given about 48 hours to call their parents before school officials do. The calls are made in the most serious cases, such as an arrest or hospitalization, or if a student shows an ongoing pattern of intoxication. But in most cases, Dean of Students Allen Groves said, he trusts his instincts.

"The easy thing to do is say, 'Here's a cookie-cutter process, and we are going to use this process the same way for every single case,' " Groves said. "But every case is not the same."

The effects of parental notification have not been widely studied, but the concept seems to work best when universities coach parents on how to react to the news, said Thomas Workman of the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, who chairs a committee focused on alcohol education. Officials need to be mindful of family dynamics and cultural differences, he said.

"We can't assume a parent knows what to do and that they would do the right thing," he said. But if approached in the right way, parents can be the perfect partners for an intervention, he said.

"Even with cellphone technology, no student would call home four or five times a day a generation ago," Workman said. "We have a very different generation. And it's smart of institutions to say, 'We should take advantage of that.' "

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