When it comes to student drinking and drug use, universities have a choice - pretend it’s not happening, or accept that it is and try to make it safer.
UC Davis and a growing number of universities are trying to tackle student substance abuse with a surprising strategy: amnesty. It’s a protocol that gives students immunity when they call for help in the case of alcohol poisoning or a drug overdose. It’s the new rule at UC Davis starting this year.
Some schools have adopted amnesty, or ‘good Samaritan’ policies after a student death due to drugs or drinking. California Polytechnic State University enacted a similar protocol after a freshman died from alcohol poisoning. His fraternity brothers, afraid of getting in trouble, left him unconscious on a mattress rather than taking him to the hospital. He never woke up.
Raeann Davis, Health Promotion Specialist for Alcohol, Tobacco and Other Drugs at UC Davis, says she wants to tackle the problem to prevent the strategy. She says she became concerned after hearing stories from students who struggled to make the right call.
“We sort of have those two themes - the health theme, be an active bystander, call for help, be a friend," says Davis. "And the secondary theme - don’t be afraid of getting into too much trouble. We’re here for you, the university wants health to be a priority.”
Some groups have criticized medical amnesty policies, claiming they encourage dangerous behavior. Research shows that a free pass increases the number of 911- calls made for intoxicated students - but it’s not clear whether there’s more substance abuse, or just more reporting.
UC Davis is the third UC campus to adopt such a policy. Sacramento State does not have an official amnesty protocol, but takes the good Samaritan move into consideration when assessing how, if at all, to sanction students.
“We communicate to students that the disciplinary process is primarily educational,” said Matt O’Connor, director of the Sacramento State Office of Student Conduct. “When a student is referred for an alcohol or other drug violation, consequences frequently involve connecting students with wellness resources, requiring counseling on healthier choices, and providing intervention when a student’s behavior presents a danger to herself or the community.”
The UC Davis policy is similar - students who were involved in a drug or alcohol incident take an educational course, but the incident does not go on their educational record. The amnesty policy does not apply if the student was involved in vandalism or assault, and amnesty can only be granted once every two years.
About 25 to 35 alcohol poisoning incidents are reported on the 35,000-student UC Davis campus each year.
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