On Stopping Student Drinking, a Salivary Solution?

North Idaho College's new policy calls for using alcohol test strips to determine if students in its (dry) dorm have been drinking.
September 18, 2008

If you lie about drinking in the dorm at North Idaho College, expect to be caught talking out of both sides of your mouth -- by virtue of a little padded strip placed in it.

The community college has a new, unorthodox policy in place this fall -- the use of AlcoScreen Saliva Alcohol Test strips when questions arise about dorm residents' consumption. North Idaho’s 202-student residence hall and its campus in Coeur d'Alene are dry. On a first alcohol offense, dorm residents pay a $100 fine and are required to undergo a counseling session. On the second, they’re to be evicted from the dorm; six students were removed for alcohol offenses last year.

“It reduces the amount of ambiguity in a situation where our staff members have to confront somebody. Lots of students try to lie to us,” said Eric Murray, North Idaho’s vice president for student services. “They recognize that we’re taking it seriously. We don’t want partying in our residence hall, and we have the means to tell whether they partied or not.”

The vast majority of North Idaho's more than 4,000 students live off the campus. But, for the minority of students who live in the single dormitory, the college required them to sign a waiver upon checking in this fall. In signing, they acknowledge that they understand the new alcohol testing procedures, and that failure to submit to a saliva test when asked is a violation of college policy.

In short, students may be asked to submit to the salivary test if they’re in the presence of alcohol containers, or if they’re involved in an altercation or assault. In addition, residence life staff -- the only ones who can administer the test -- can use the strips to assess the (alcohol) content of a cup or container that the student is carrying, assuming that student draws attention for inappropriate or "out of character" behavior.

The waiver stipulates that the test strips will be used only for on-campus disciplinary purposes; results would not, administrators said, be turned over to the cops. The listed goals for using the strips include to “prove the innocence of students that truly are not drinking,” to “help eliminate the ability of students to abuse the appeal process by denying alcohol consumption,” and to “require more accountability of the students.”

“It’s a learning tool, too. It shows the students that they can’t just talk their way out of stuff and there are consequences for their actions,” said Paula Czirr, the residence life manager. Czirr, who used the strips previously while working at North Central Missouri College, said that when confronted, most students will just admit consuming alcohol rather than take the test (though “it’s really a lot easier” to get a confession with the strips as ammunition, Czirr said).

The strips can also be used to confirm innocence, Czirr continued. “We present it as, ‘We want to prove you aren’t drinking if you aren’t.' "

Austin Folnagy, a North Idaho sophomore and the student body president, said he’s heard no complaints or concerns about the residence hall’s new policy.

However, in a sign that college student drinking is in the news (including North Idaho's college newspaper) and at the forefront of people’s minds, “We have received some interest from the student body on the Amethyst Initiative,” said Folnagy, in reference to a petition by college presidents calling for "an informed and dispassionate public debate” on the drinking age. “Twenty-one is not working," the petition states.

Not everyone in North Idaho’s dorm is under 21: Czirr estimates that six students are of age, but, under college policy, can’t drink in the dry dorm. “I’m not [even] allowed to have alcohol in my apartment, and I’m well old enough to drink,” said Czirr, who lives in the residence hall.

There’s one 58-year-old who lives there right now. If circumstances warranted it, would that student be subject to an alcohol test, too?

“I probably would, I probably would test him,” said Czirr, laughing. “It would be awkward, but yeah.”

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