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Tell students' parents of alcohol violations

Published Sep. 29, 2005

For too many parents, the first call they receive about their college student drinking to excess comes from the police station _ or the emergency room. It is only after trouble has become tragedy that our universities notify loved ones of problem behavior. We owe it to parents and students to change that.

Traditionally, colleges and universities have taken a laissez-faire approach to parental notification of student alcohol violations. One of the aims of the college experience is to foster student independence and individual responsibility. Parental notification appears to be the antithesis of this goal. However, the independence and responsibility that our universities foster must be done in a safe and law-abiding environment. The levels of drinking on our campuses and the recent tragedies resulting from some of the excesses demand that we do more to prevent alcohol-related problems at our state universities. Parents of our university students should be part of the solution.

I believe we should involve parents more in controlling the problem of alcohol abuse by adopting a policy requiring all public universities to notify parents if underage students are caught drinking or possessing alcohol in violation of state law. Universities should not serve as surrogate parents, nor should our university students be treated as if they are still high school students whose parents can be called down to the principal's office. Rather, there should be a partnership between colleges and the parents of students in our university system.

The legal context for the proposed parental notification policy comes on the heels of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act passed as part of the Higher Education Amendments of 1998. These amendments made several changes designed to crack down on student drug and alcohol abuse and on crimes committed by students. Until 1998, Congress prohibited colleges from releasing student information, including alcohol- and drug-related offenses, even to the parents of students. However, under new rules proposed by the U.S. Department of Education, institutions may adopt a policy of notifying the parents of any student under the age of 21 who was caught drinking or using illegal drugs. In light of these recent federal legislative reforms, our public universities are authorized to involve parents in the process of curbing alcohol abuse among college students. The Board of Regents of the State University System should seize this opportunity in adopting a parental notification policy.

In Florida, we should try a parental notification policy on a trial basis (up to two years) to determine whether it helps to address the problem of alcohol abuse among our college students.

According to Daniel Carter, vice president of Security On Campus Inc., a non-profit organization that monitors crime on campuses, incidents of crime and deaths mean that heavy drinking can no longer be dismissed as simply "a part of college life." Although drinking problems on campuses are not limited to the Greek system, recent incidents among fraternities and sororities have highlighted the issue of alcohol abuse among university students.

For instance, a fraternity member at one Florida university was hospitalized for two days after drinking a liter of rum in about 25 minutes during a fraternity pledge event. Another fraternity was suspended from a university campus when its members videotaped an initiation party in which underage fraternity members were drinking and having sex with a dancer that the fraternity members hired. Such problems are not limited to Florida. In Michigan, for example, 10 university students were charged with alcohol violations after a party ended in the death of an 18-year-old student. An 18-year-old Massachusetts student was found lying on a basement floor in a coma after a night of binge drinking. In Virginia, five students died in alcohol-related incidents in 1997. While such fatal incidents are rare, our state universities should take a more aggressive position in involving parents long before we have more serious problems.

A recent article in the Florida Times-Union reported that national studies indicate that about 40 percent of college students engage in heavy, episodic drinking. Research collected by the U.S. Department of Education reveals that college students spend $5.5-billion on alcohol, mostly beer, each year _ more than they spend on books, soda, coffee, juice and milk combined. Further, studies and police reports indicate that alcohol plays a role in many crimes that occur on college campuses.

Numerous public and private colleges and universities have addressed the problem of alcohol violations among students by taking advantage of the changes in federal law. Such schools as Clemson University, Georgetown University, the College of William and Mary, Old Dominion and the University of Delaware have adopted policies to notify parents of student alcohol violations. Studies at several colleges have shown these policies are working.

Massachusetts recently became the first state to enact a statewide policy requiring its public colleges and universities to inform parents when their children are caught drinking or possessing alcohol on campuses. Florida should follow Massachusetts by taking a more aggressive stance on alcohol abuse on our campuses.

Through parental notification, we aim to serve the student population by forcing accountability to the parents and legal guardians who help support them in their formative years. In addition, we serve the parents of college students by informing them of potential problems and asking parents to have a conversation with their child before it is too late. Even if no problem exists, parents would have one more opportunity to talk to their children about this important issue. We serve all students and our entire state by sending an important message that we care about the health and welfare of our students.

The first call to parents from a university about their children should not be the last.

Steven Uhlfelder is a member and former chair of the Board of Regents and partner in Holland and Knight, a law firm.