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/ March 2, 2010
Colleges Rat Your Drinking Habits Out To Your Parents

Hey, you! Yes, you, studying Suri’s latest drink of the week more diligently than you do for your Nat Sci lecture. Next time you prepare to down a couple shots of flavored vodka in between shuffling your feet to Yeasayer songs in a Hayden dorm room because you got your ID taken last week and can’t go anywhere, ask yourself: What would my parents think?

And across the country, it’s becoming easier to find out the answer to that question. As one mother recently pointed out in a New York Times blog post, one university after another has “concluded that one thing students seem to fear as much as expulsion is being found out by their parents.” This is arguable true, but it’s really the way these schools notify my parents that determines how much fear such disciplinary action will instill in me. Phone call about a six-pack in the fridge? Meh. What happened when I was sent to the emergency room freshman year? A lot worse.

Okay, so one night I took like eight(ish) shots of Bacardi 151 (151-proof!) while pregaming a margarita party in U-Hall. I don’t remember even making it to U-Hall, let alone attempting to drink a margarita but only managing to pass out on the couch in the common room. But those things happened, followed by a trip to the ER and a tear-stained cab ride back to my dorm the next morning. I was going to call my parents and explain what had happened, but upon charging my phone I saw that they’d already left me a voice mail. Oh, hey, the school already told them–in a wildly inappropriate manner, too!

“Do you know where your son spent the night?” an administrator asked my mom (according to what my mom told me). This was an alarming and vaguely threatening way to begin that conversation, in my opinion, but what did I know? I was just a freshman with a tacky scarf and a budding drinking problem.

The conversation continued between my mother and the school, and what gets me—to this day—is the way NYU explained what had happened in ambiguous droplets: “Sent to the hospital.” “Alcohol poisoning.” “Not the first violation.” (Maybe not the best time to mention that, NYU.) You get the idea; instead of being straightforward and calm, NYU seemed to stoke my parents’ alarm.

Sure, mom and dad disciplined me, and I’ve never had that much to drink again. (Ew, Bacardi 151—what was I thinking?) But neither of those resulted from NYU’s intervention; my parents would have been scared and pissed at me whether I’d told them first or not, and I’d like to avoid being rushed to the hospital again.

So yes, I worry when I read about how “Virginia Tech [recently] joined a growing list of colleges that notify parents every time a student younger than 21 is caught drinking, drunk or in possession of alcohol.” But according to the Washington Post, that’s exactly what’s happening at schools across the country. The underlying belief to this disciplinary trend is that “students are more concerned about their parents being notified than they are of the legal consequences,” as a Virginia Tech administrator observes in the article. This in itself doesn’t annoy me, but the implication of that observation certainly does; apparently, colleges don’t trust students to tell their parents about serious drinking offenses themselves.

The policy seems to be working:

In 1997, the University of Delaware became one of the first schools to implement an “every time” notification policy. School officials say the policy, along with aggressive penalties, has reduced binge drinking on campus and curtailed the university’s party-school reputation.

But there’s a difference between incidents of “binge drinking” and simply trying to buy a bottle of wine with your fake. And as anyone who has ever suffered a bad hangover following a night of heavy drinking will tell you, it’s not usually something you look to repeat the next night. Even the mother from the New York Times questions the indiscriminating scope of the “every time” policy: “Where is the line? A six-pack found in a dorm? A trip to the emergency room for alcohol poisoning?”

A Penn State student makes a good point in a letter to the editor published in today’s Daily Collegian when he points out that “parents and potential students all understand that drinking is an integral part of the college experience.” The level of anger and concern with which most parents will respond to incidents of their children drinking illegally depends on the severity of the offense. A trip to the emergency room certainly justifies telling parents, though if schools won’t trust their students to do this themselves, then they need to make sure they talk to parents clearly and responsibly, instead of making an already bad situation worse through fear-mongering and dramatization, intentionally or not. Getting busted for a couple beers, on the other hand, does not require parental intervention; if universities think that students on the receiving end of “every time” policies are going to curb illegal activity instead of simply finding stealthier ways to get wasted, then they’re kidding themselves.

Obviously, if a student has been repeatedly written up for alcohol violations to such an extent that his or her residency in the dorms is in question, parents footing the bill for room and board have the right to know. But in most cases, the stakes aren’t that high, and policies like the one Virginia Tech has adopted won’t help do anything except make the student more annoyed at the school’s administration.

And nothing quells anger at The Man quite like a strong drink or three.