Underage binge drinking has become a national epidemic. According to the Center for Disease Control, 90 percent of underage drinking qualifies as binge drinking, defined by the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism as four drinks in two hours for women and five drinks in two hours for men. The rash of alcohol poisonings at Occidental last year, and subsequent cancellation of on-campus dances, proves that Occidental students are no strangers to binge drinking. With the reinstatement of these dances, it is time to re-examine Occidental’s alcohol policy.
Occidental’s alcohol policy complies with the Drug-Free Schools and Community Acts Amendments of 1989, which requires any university receiving federal funding to establish a drug and alcohol policy that meets state and federal laws. The flaws in Occidental’s alcohol policy stem from the larger, systemic issue of the national legal drinking age, but it also perpetuates this issue through harsh language that fails to acknowledge the reality of drinking in college.
Occidental’s policy is functionally the same as most other schools in the country, as many schools receive federal funding and therefore must also comply with the act. Comparable institutions such as Pomona, Pitzer, Chapman and Claremont-McKenna all follow the same federal guidelines, yet what makes Occidental different is the language of our policy. The current policy language does students no benefit by refusing to acknowledge the realities of alcohol consumption on a college campus.
Occidental’s policy states that “Occidental does not shield its students from the law or from the consequences of their own behavior.” In contrast, Pomona’s alcohol policy states that the school emphasizes a “therapeutic approach when working with students involved in alcohol policy violations.” Their policy also lists a drug and alcohol counselor to whom students can speak confidentially.
Pomona further states that “the College recognizes that responsible alcohol use can be compatible with healthy adult behavior and successful social events.” Occidental’s policy has no such sentiment, and this is the fatal flaw. Occidental fails to recognize the complexity of student life and of alcohol use at the college, focusing instead on the enforcement of standards that may actually encourage irresponsible binge drinking, rather than helping to dispel it.
The punitive nature of Occidental’s alcohol policy is reflected in its enforcement by Residential Education and Housing Services (REHS). According to a Residential Adviser who wished to remain anonymous, REHS initiated a policy this year in which underage students can be written up for having a shot glass in their room, even if there is no alcohol in the room.
Rather than punishing students for this, Occidental’s policy and administration should be part of a larger, national conversation about the detriments of underage drinking. In 2008, John McCardell, President Emeritus of Middlebury College, formed the Amethyst Initiative, an organization of college presidents, past and present, advocating for an open discussion about the functionality of 21 as a legal drinking age. Signed by 136 current and former college presidents, including Robert A. Skotheim, the president of Occidental preceding President Jonathan Veitch, the Amethyst Initiative works to encourage informed debate on the 21-year-old drinking age. Veitch’s signature, however, is missing from the initiative.
The national legal drinking age does not deter students from drinking in college, and likely never will. To combat the detrimental effects of these policies, Occidental should work toward changing the law to something with which colleges can comply. In the short term however, Occidental needs to accept that students will inevitably drink and change the language of the drinking policy accordingly, so that it does not penalize students too greatly for an action that is intrinsically part of most students’ lives.