Some universities calling home for student alcohol policy violations
By Claire Ballentine
October 1, 2015
The University of Michigan and other colleges have started using parental notifications in punishing alcohol or drug violations.
At some universities, students facing alcohol violations may have to suffer consequences from not only administrative officials but also their parents.
Several universities have adopted parental notification policies that inform parents of their student’s alcohol or drug violations—most recently the University of Michigan, which unveiled a new pilot program this year focusing on first-year students’ alcohol offenses. Mary Jo Desprez, director of wellness at U-M, explained that many universities—especially Big Ten schools—have had similar policies in place for many years. Still, many college students are concerned about the effects of this approach to reduce alcohol-related problems on campuses.
“At U-M, as well as across the country, the data is pretty clear that first year students can be an ‘at-risk’ population as they transition from home to college life,” Desprez wrote in an email. “We also know that students consider parents part of their social support system. “
The Family Education Rights and Privacy Act—which governs release of and access to student education records—states that institutions of higher education are allowed, but not required, to notify parents if a student under the age of 21 commits a disciplinary violation involving alcohol or a controlled substance.
Under U-M’s policy, a student’s parents may be notified of an individual’s first alcohol or drug violation if the individual needs medical attention or engages in other serious behavior such as significant property damage or driving under the influence. A student’s parents may also be informed if a student commits a second alcohol or drug violation of any type.
Desprez explained that the goal of this strategy is to bring attention the alcohol issues that students face before these problems escalate.
“What we hope is that we can intervene early when there is a sign of a pattern of behavior that could harm the student or a situation that was dangerous,” she said. “This is a health and wellness issue and we will have that be the spirit of our discussions with parents and families.”
The approach to alcohol violations at Duke is similar to U-M’s but not identical. The University’s Alcohol Policy states that the parents of students who put their health or safety at risk through alcohol consumption may be notified. Stephen Bryan, associate dean of students and the director of the Duke Student Conduct Office, said that parental notification occurs in most, but not all situations.
“Students are given the first opportunity to tell their parents and then we ask them to be in touch with us,” he wrote in an email.
David Mallen, the alcohol and drug senior program coordinator at the Wellness Center, explained that Student Conduct evaluates the situation on a case by case basis. He added that under certain circumstances, informing parents of their child’s alcohol violation may make the situation worse, but that it generally helps students create a stronger support network.
Mallen explained that in his experience, parents usually want to support their students and approach the situation from a concerned point of view. He noted that parental notification is not uncommon and said that at Pennsylvania State University, where he previously worked, parents are notified for any alcohol or drug offense by a student.
Reactions to parental notification policies have varied widely. Desprez noted that some students at U-M think their university should have no contact with a student’s parents. Anushka Sarkar, a sophomore at U-M, said that she worries the policy will negate U-M’s amnesty policy—which allows students to call for help if another student’s life is in danger without fear of punishment—because students will worry about facing consequences from their parents.
“This policy gives a reason to not call for help,” she said. “Anyone 18 or older should have autonomy in deciding if their parents find something out about their health history.”
Several Duke students also said that they thought parental notification policies are problematic if the student is a legal adult.
“It would make sense if we were minors, but we should have a say now,” said freshman Bella Letourneau.
Brandon Dalla Rosa, also a freshman, added that students should be able to make the decision to inform their parents about occurrences in their lives, especially because students no longer live in their parents’ homes.
Mallen explained, however, that many first-year students face difficulties adjusting to life on campus and use alcohol or drugs to acclimate, but then inevitably run into more problems. In these situations, parental notification policies often result in the student receiving more support, which helps them overall, he said. He added that most of the objection to these policies comes from students, who think informing their parents will make the situation worse.
“Once people understand why the policy is in place, they tend to feel better about it,” he said.