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Monday, July 11, 2016

Taking good care of each other

We have recently been reconsidering our approach to accountability related to off-campus parties. This was prompted, in part, by an incident in which a student was hospitalized for serious alcohol poisoning last winter. He was driven from an off-campus residence to Trinity where the students called the Trinity University Police Department to invoke the responsible friend policy. That extra step of purposefully returning the student to campus was caused by fear, primarily, because the hosts had previously been in trouble organizationally for hosting off-campus events. They didn't want the call for help to be connected to the residence, and thus, their group. Moments mattered and our students, who ultimately did the right thing, had to pause. Scary.

For years the staff has tried to hold groups accountable for off-campus behavior. Off-campus parties at private residences often have consequences back on campus: alcohol poisoning, assault, vandalism, tomfoolery/shenanigans/hijinx, to name a few.  In addition, this behavior affects the reputation of the institution with neighbors in the community, who call me, saying they expected better from Trinity students.. I have often asked students: "How would your parents or grandparents feel about having you as a neighbor?"

Ultimately, we have worked hard to teach students to care about other students because they should. This sense of care and community is a hallmark of our student culture. But sometimes alcohol clouds judgment. On campus, we have worked hard to stress the responsible friend policy and the Optimal Buzz and B'Low Optimal programs. Telling students not to drink is wholly ineffective, impractical, and hypocritical. The drinking age is designed with high schools in mind, but not colleges, where half the population has privileges not shared by the other half. Students mostly come together at private residences off-campus to share those privileges - away from Res Life staff and TUPD on campus and bouncers at most bars. Our philosophy is unambiguous: we acknowledge students will drink; enforce policies as dictated by law; and most importantly, care deeply about student health and safety.

A long time ago, ago when I lived on south campus, it was unsettling hearing party-goers streaming past my home en route to off-campus parties a block away. The unsettling part was just letting it happen (not to mention being kept awake and kinda wishing I could go too). A changing legal and risk management climate led to changes that would have us reverse course, and try to monitor such parties. That ended up being worse, as it turns out.

After all, we don't have fraternity and sorority houses for a reason. We don't want that responsibility and accountability, and the local fraternity/sorority structure doesn't lend itself to it. So these groups created their own informal party spots. But parsing out whether the party where something bad happened was a private party, a fraternity party, or a team party has proven to be challenging. The informal house monikers: the rugby house, the Alpha Psi house (names changed to protect the innocent) muddied the campus affiliation/accountability equation. House parties are ostensibly connected to University-affiliated groups, which draws us in, unwillingly. While some organizations have been effectively held accountable, it has been messy. An athlete may be in a fraternity and live with a person from another group. Determining a specific hosting group can be challenging. 

Against this back-drop, then, students have often claimed that parties weren't group-affiliated. Ironically, this year a student insisted to the Conduct Board that it actually was his group that hosted the party, so he should bear no individual responsibility. That doesn't jibe with personal responsibility but one can see how the argument challenges our notions of group and individual responsibilities.Quantifying what constitutes a party, or not, is an additional challenge.

With frustrations building from the alcohol poisoning incident and a couple of difficult-to-label parties, the staff met with members of the fraternity and sorority community this spring. It became clear, quickly, that groups were either registering parties, as required, and ignoring risk management guidelines, or were taking their chances with unregistered events. While not surprising, it was a bit of a breakthrough to be able to discuss this candidly.

We were able to acknowledge that between certain fraternities and other groups (extra-curricular), maybe a half-dozen residences were hosting the majority of parties every year. If we can get the students in these homes to work toward more responsible hosting, maybe we can accomplish our goals outside of what now seem to be ineffective policies. Indeed, we agreed that the issues we hoped to address were drunk driving; sexual assault; alcohol poisoning; and disruption to neighbors.

As a result, the University has developed a policy that shifts accountability to individual students and hosts. Essentially, under the new proposed guidelines, students off-campus can find themselves in violation of policy if they don't care for others at their events. If a student is placed in a dangerous situation and the hosts don't do the right thing, then they will be held accountable as an individual. The shift is away from groups and parties themselves toward harm reduction.

The Greek Council-led efforts to develop specific guidelines have been fantastic, as the students, with consultation from advisor Jeremy Allen, set out to draft tips for safer parties and new training for student hosts. For example, they told us that party punch was more economical than other ways to serve alcohol and in their houses that wasn't going to change. But what they would do is ensure that trained students are stationed at the punch, monitoring consumption, and even listing ingredients. The Student Athletic Advisory Council was invited in as well. The students from both groups have seemingly embraced this emphasis on student safety if the threat of action against organizations is reduced. This fall, we will pilot this new approach, once finalized, and continue to work collaboratively with our students to care for each other at off-campus parties.

On campus, we clean up the messes from students who are over-served off-campus. We have to react, investigate, and decide what to do with groups. Fraternities feel unfairly singled out compared to other groups lacking the same level of oversight. As it stands, the parties keep happening, and the Dean and his staff work to control the uncontrollable, alienating students in the process. So maybe this will work better. Maybe not. But we all agree that student health and safety is our number one priority. We can do nothing. Or we can take better care of each other. 

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