Heroin Death Rattles a Campus

Reed College, known for its counterculture intellectualism, ponders what response is appropriate following a drug-related tragedy.
April 17, 2008

Two cases of student heroin use at Reed College this academic year have sparked a discussion about campus culture and what, if anything, the institution should do differently to set the tone. At a college that prides itself on its counterculture reputation and independent streak, hitting the right notes in a formal response can be a challenge.

This month, a first-year Reed student died in his dorm room of an accidental heroin overdose. In December, a sophomore who overdosed on the drug was placed on medical leave.

Colin Diver, Reed's president, said the college initially handled the December case as a private medical matter. But the incident prompted the president to call for a meeting of faculty and staff about drug use and the college's policy on dealing with students who violate Reed's official code against illegal drugs on campus.

Diver said surveys of students from 2002 and 2007 show a decrease in self-reported drug use on campus, and the college says the last time a student died on campus from any cause was nearly 15 years ago. Still, Reed continues to carry the reputation as being a drug-friendly place -- some jokingly refer to the college as "Weed." What's startling to some at the Portland, Ore., campus is that the recent cases involve heroin, a much more serious drug.

In the meeting held in response to the December heroin incident, Diver said several people who are on the front lines dealing with students said there is "too much ambiguity" with regard to how they should handle cases involving student drug abuse.

The overwhelming priority for the college, Diver said, is encouraging students to seek and obtain treatment. "We treat it as a medical issue and not a moral issue," he added.

Safety officials at Reed tend not to go into dorms without probable cause, and don't conduct random searches of students, Diver said. Most cases involving students who violate drug policies are handled through internal disciplinary hearings, and the college has expelled students and placed others on extended suspension.

Reed's drug and alcohol committee, which includes faculty, staff and students who advise the president on matters relating to drug prevention and policy enforcement, has also raised the question of whether the enforcement policies are too ambiguous. The conversations took place before the student death this month, and Diver said he isn't sure how, or if, the case is going to change the debate.

Peter Phalen, a Reed sophomore, said he doesn't get the impression that students are interested in seeing more policing by campus officials. Students operate under the implicit understanding that if they make rational decisions and aren't acting in a way that harms others, they won't be bothered by the college. That, he said, shows that administrators trust students, and helps promote honest conversations about drug use at Reed.

"The problem with tightening the rules is that you probably won't reach the kind of people who use the hard drugs," Phalen said. "By the time you find them it's likely too late."

Devon Porter, another Reed student, said in a letter to the editor in The Oregonian that although Reed students tend to be liberal about drug use, the attitude does not extend to the use of dangerous drugs such as heroin.

"Generalizing from a single incident to make recommendations for Reed's drug and alcohol policy is dangerous because it overlooks some of the benefits (yes, benefits) that the policy provides," he wrote to the newspaper. "How many students at other schools die of alcohol poisoning at fraternities every year?"

Porter added that the college's focus on helping students deal with addictions rather than taking a punitive approach allows students to seek out help when there's a problem without fearing the repercussions. An article in The Reed College Quest, the college's weekly student newspaper, pointed to a meeting of students and staff in which people echoed the sentiment that they don't want the recent death to be the impetus for a policy change.

Diver said prior to the recent heroin cases, he'd been thinking less about that drug and more about how to talk with students about methamphetamine abuse. (He said he doesn't consider meth to be a particular problem among his students, but it has a recent history in Oregon.)

Diver said he's noticed a growth in heroin use in high schools and colleges. “One of the reasons why this particular death at this college is a story is that people don’t know that it has invaded the upper and middle class society, and so it’s been a shock to them.”

Phalen said the case has served as a reality check on campus. He considers heroin to be underground at Reed, "even by our standards."

Diver said that while he stands by the decision not to make the December case public, it's fair game to discuss what cases should be made public in the future for purposes of informing students and educating others about the risks of the drug.

For now, the president said, he doesn't want to lurch into policy changes or use the death as "justification for draconian measures."

"Moralistic lectures don't fly here," Diver said. "There's little tolerance for insincere gestures or top-down commands. We need to be consistent with the culture of this place while at the same time identify the worst problems and what we can do about it."


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