As universities increase the numbers of students they send abroad and the diversity of program locales, a growing number of institutions are creating full-time international health, safety and security-related positions.
A successful alcohol risk reduction campaign, student health officials say, involves coordination across the university and the city -- and no dawdling. Getting it right can reduce incidents by the hundreds.
The recent drinking-related death of a freshman at California State University at Fresno should alert college administrators, students, and parents to the seriousness of student alcohol abuse as it occurs in and around campus settings. This unnecessary tragedy should also motivate students to use every precaution available when engaging with alcohol, a popular – and dangerous – hobby.
When I read of these incidents, and there are far too many, I wonder why student alcohol misuse continues to be a problem. It seems that every tragedy sparks a renewed campus interest in curbing alcohol abuse, whether in the form of community vigils to raise awareness, student activism aimed at changing the college culture, or policy reforms that promise safer campus environments. However, just as soon as we take a step forward to make a campus environment safer, popular culture pushes us two steps backward.
College students are targeted with messages that promote drinking as a part of the college experience. Students see images from mega-beer advertising in everything from sports to popular reality TV shows. In this year of the presidential election, drinking beer has even played a role in making President Obama appear more likable to voters. In this environment, I find myself resigned to the belief that notwithstanding the risks, students are going to consume alcohol, sometimes in unhealthy ways, while in college. It is a part of the college experience, just as much as the freshman 15 and the sophomore slump are rites of passage.
Campus administrators have responded to student alcohol misuse with education, policy and advocacy outreach. Campuses have grown their arsenal of websites, policies, pamphlets, posters, videos, training sessions, peer educators, themed housing, community coalitions, online assessments, and other tools to combat the issue and help students make safer choices with alcohol. The research suggests that the use of these various tools does curb alcohol misuse and risky drinking behavior. In my research, I have found that students frequently engage with alcohol in risky ways while attending off-campus parties. The bottom line is simply this: students are better off with the intervention than without it.
But are these interventions sufficient? And conversely, if we add one more program to our strategy, will it make a difference? My research leads me to believe that a focus on off-campus party hosts could make a difference. It is clear that those who organize or host parties are underprepared and ill-educated to do so. I advocate for targeted education of party hosts so that they can work to create and manage parties in safe and responsible ways. I focus on students who host parties, because I believe they are the best individuals to make decisions that can save the lives of others. In the same way that they bring groups of students together for parties, both on- and off-campus, they also stay at campus parties long after administrators have gone home or to sleep.
Focusing on hosts leads to some important policy and programmatic strategies. Policies that encourage hosts to take protective actions when promoting alcohol use are likely to be more effective than banning alcohol from parties. However, most party hosts are not ready for this responsibility. Students are underprepared to create and manage parties in which others can socialize with alcohol in safe environments. For example, when I asked hosts about their preparations for and actions during a party, they said they are unlikely to provide any snacks, heavier food, water, or non-alcoholic beverages. By not making these common protective items available, they are missing an opportunity to reduce the likelihood of intoxication among party guests.
In addition, hosts are unlikely to use basic party management techniques, such as adherence to state alcohol laws; preventing minors from drinking at their party; having a sober team or keeping sober themselves; calling police if the party gets out of control; verifying that the smoke detectors and fire extinguisher work before a party; and contacting neighbors in advance of a party. Party hosts seem unaware that each of these proactive measures could greatly reduce personal liability and risk to students.
Party hosts are a weak link in the chain of strategies to manage the campus environment. There is a need to be more aggressive as we extend alcohol education programs to those who host or plan to host off-campus parties. It is a safe assumption that on-campus and off-campus party hosts behave similarly. In our collective effort to curb student alcohol-related incidents, campus administrators should continue their work along the environmental management approach by intentionally targeting student party hosts. Because this is a challenging group to reach, hosts would benefit from a curriculum that promotes safe party management, practical online resources for event planning, messages from campus and community leaders that reinforce healthy drinking behaviors, and policies that give students the incentive to do the right thing, like good Samaritan and medical amnesty policies.
But is curbing student alcohol misuse the ultimate goal? No, we need to push beyond curbing alcohol misuse to stop senseless and preventable alcohol-related deaths. For this to happen there needs to be a cultural shift in the way in which the campus community values alcohol and alcohol-related activities, especially as they occur on or near college campuses. Common practices that send unintended messages to students include limited late night or weekend student activity programming; few Friday or weekend classes or exams; sporting events that sell alcohol and promote a tradition of pre- and post-game tailgate parties; open bar events for university donors, faculty, and alumni; vague student alcohol policies that are often not applied equally to all student groups; and area restaurants and bars that give significant discounts for happy hour, pitcher, and bottomless cup promotions. Until we seriously address the issue of campus drinking, including a campus dialogue between and among campus members, campus administrators will remain handcuffed to strategies that are additive in nature but that do not adequately address the problem.
Designing and implementing a comprehensive party host curriculum and training is additive – but significant. I urge scholar practitioners to rethink, research, and discuss new and integrative approaches to alcohol education. Students who are new to college campuses, such as the case at Fresno State, deserve a better environment in which to learn and develop. They deserve an environment and a campus administration that strives for more than curbing student alcohol misuse. The goal of an environmental management approach is to influence behavioral changes within campus and community environments; the challenge is to do so with campus-specific interventions, limited resources, and narrowly tailored campus committees responsible for risk management.
Rick C. Jakeman is assistant professor of higher education within the Graduate School of Education and Human Development at George Washington University.
College students like to drink. Sometimes they drink too much. And sometimes they pay the price – academically, socially, and sometimes, with their lives. No matter how well-intentioned they are, educational prevention methods like posters and lectures alone will not stop all this from happening.
Students know this. Administrators know this. Yet, according to new research, the vast majority of colleges, when it comes to prevention, are leaving an extraordinary resource untapped – the students themselves.
A recent survey of college and university officials found that 66 percent of institutions now collect criminal justice information about would-be students, usually through self-disclosure on the application. The survey revealed that a wide range of offenses can get an applicant additional screening that can lead to rejection, and that less than half of the colleges that use this approach have written policies to guide admissions officers or train those employees.
As the head of the Center for Community Alternatives, the organization that asked the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers to conduct the survey, I am troubled by the survey’s findings. CCA’s core mission is removing the barriers to employment, education and full community reintegration faced by individuals who have been involved in the criminal justice system, and we know, from both the research literature and from our own experience, that access to a higher education can have a profound effect on individual lives. If past criminal convictions are preventing significant numbers of young people from going to college, then we all lose out.
That’s why these colleges’ policies concern us. Seventy-five percent of schools consider any drug or alcohol conviction negatively in spite of how common those offenses are among the college-age population. And one-third of schools consider pending misdemeanors or even misdemeanor arrests in a negative light.
Also disturbing is the ad hoc quality of the procedures used by many of the schools that collect this sensitive information. At the 40 percent of colleges that train staff on how to interpret criminal records, the training is most often provided by campus security or “other staff.” The lack of in depth-training is troubling because criminal records are often inaccurate and almost always more complicated than they may seem at first blush.
A major complication in interpreting criminal records is that state laws vary so greatly that two college applicants from different states, convicted of the same offense at age 15, could end up with entirely different criminal history records. One may end up with an adult record while the other will have no adult record whatsoever. In some states anyone older than 16 can be prosecuted as an adult and end up with a permanent record. In other states the cut-off age is 18, and those who are younger will be processed in the juvenile system, which protects them from a permanent conviction. Without training, admissions officers will not be aware of the vagaries of state criminal records and will be more likely to make arbitrary decisions based on inaccurate facts.
There are important public policy reasons to eschew the collection of criminal history information from college applicants. The fact that African Americans and Latinos are overrepresented in the criminal justice population is no longer open to question. Racial profiling and the heavy concentration of police in low-income, urban neighborhoods have led to high rates of arrest, prosecution and conviction among communities of color. An African American in the city of Los Angeles is seven times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession, a misdemeanor, as a white person is. A Latino in the same city is twice as likely to be arrested for that offense as a white person. Yet government studies show that whites use marijuana more than either blacks or Latinos. Based on these facts, screening for criminal records cannot be a race-neutral practice.
Are there serious risks involved in not conducting criminal background checks? There is no empirical evidence that students with criminal records present a threat to campus safety. Only one study has investigated the link between criminal history screening and improved safety on campus; no statistical difference in campus crime was found between schools that screen and schools that don’t.
The U.S. Department of Education has concluded that “students on the campuses of post-secondary institutions are significantly safer than the nation as a whole.” The most horrific campus crimes, like the Virginia Tech and Northern Illinois University shootings, are committed by students who don’t have criminal records. Rape and sexual assault are the only crimes showing no statistical differences between college students and non-students, and those offenses are most often committed by inebriated students who have no prior criminal records. Thirty-eight percent of the respondents in our survey reported that they did not use criminal justice information in their admissions processes, and none of them indicated that they believed their campuses were less safe as a result.
Colleges and universities can responsibly refrain from collecting criminal background information about applicants, and by doing so will be able to attract a diverse student body and maintain a safe and secure campus. But if criminal history screening is done, it should be done according to reasonable, fair and written policies and procedures:
Remove the disclosure requirement from initial application for admission and ask for criminal justice information only after conditional admission.
Limit the disclosure requirement to convictions for felonies (not misdemeanors or infractions) that were committed within the past five years and that were committed after the applicant’s 19th birthday.
Establish admissions criteria that are fair and evidence-based, e.g., remove barriers to admission of individuals who are under some form of community supervision and provide an opportunity to document personal growth and rehabilitation.
Base admissions decisions on assessments that are well-informed and unbiased by developing in-house expertiseand performing an assessment and multi-factor analysis to determine whether a past criminal offense justifies rejection.
Establish written procedures that are transparent and consistent with due process. Applicants should be informed in writing of the reason for the withdrawal of an offer of admission and should be afforded the right of appeal.
Offer support and advocacy including on-campus support services for students who have criminal records.
Evaluate the policy periodically to determine whether it is justified.
There are great social benefits associated with a more educated citizenry — more informed voters, better parents, and a more skilled workforce, to name a few. A college education is a crime prevention tool: colleges and universities promote public safety in the larger community when they open their doors to people with criminal records who demonstrate the commitment and qualifications to pursue higher education.
Marsha Weissman is executive director of the Center for Community Alternatives. The organization’s full report, "The Use of Criminal History Records in College Admissions Reconsidered," can be downloaded from its website.