Reckless drinking on campus can have real-world consequences

Sally Morgan, Director of Student Judicial Services

Sally Morgan, Director of Student Judicial Services

Photo By David Robert

On Dec. 18, 2005, Wyatt B. felt like celebrating. The then-18-year-old freshman had just finished the last final of his first semester at the University of Nevada, Reno. He wanted to go to a party with friends, drink a bit and have fun. He certainly never planned to end up in jail. (Wyatt’s identity is being withheld for reasons of privacy).

“I went to a house party and drank a ton of whiskey and vodka,” he says. “I don’t even know how much. All I remember is trying to get into my dorm, then waking up in the drunk tank and being picked up by my parents. It was the worst decision I’ve ever made.”

Because he was arrested on the UNR campus, in addition to the fines every first-time offender has to pay, he also had to attend an alcohol workshop on-campus, see a substance abuse counselor, and have a meeting with a university judicial representative. The strict consequences for underage drinking will face many of UNR’s incoming freshmen this fall.

“The enforcement of underage drinking laws is handled in a very strict manner,” says Sally Morgan, director of Student Judicial Services. “Last spring, we conducted a survey that found 89 percent of our students regularly consume alcohol. We’re committed at the university to provide education and support to students that might have a drinking problem.”

As part of that effort, Morgan is helping coordinate a pilot program for students who live in the dorms, the place where most drug and alcohol violations occur. According to Morgan, of the 1,650 students in UNR’s seven residence halls last year, 23 had to be removed because of problems with drug and alcohol regulations. Morgan says the new program will give students the option of completing a “drug court” where they will have a case manager and several workshops to complete rather than having to leave their dorm and, possibly, the university.

Underage students face tough consequences for possessing alcohol in the dorms or for coming home intoxicated. The Residence Hall Standards of Conduct state that only individuals 21 or older may have alcohol in the dorms, with doors closed and no minors present. If anyone in the room is under 21, everyone is in violation of the policy.

If an underage student is found in possession of alcohol or tries to get into the dorms while under the influence, they will face one of three minimum sanctions: a written warning plus required attendance at a substance-abuse education program; residence hall probation and referral to meet with a substance-abuse counselor for a minimum of one session; or cancellation of the housing license agreement and removal from the residence hall.

University officials also have the option of taking the intoxicated student into Civil Protective Custody, known by students as “the drunk tank,” which is exactly where Wyatt spent the night.

“I was so drunk I don’t really remember much of the night,” he says. “I do know I had given my keys to someone else so I wouldn’t drive, but then I had no way to get into my dorm. The R.A. (resident assistant) could tell I was wasted so they called university police.”

Wyatt was charged with minor in possession/consumption and was taken to the Parr Boulevard Jail. Because it was his first offense, the court waived most of his fines. But he was still in trouble with UNR.

“I had to see a substance abuse counselor, have a meeting with a UNR judicial representative and attend an alcohol-abuse class and workshop,” he says. “It took me the whole following semester to finish. It sucked to spend the night in the drunk tank, but I was just glad they didn’t kick me out of school.”

Todd Renwick, assistant chief of the UNR Police Department, says that police care about students’ safety, and the “drunk tank” is for their own safety.

“Our fear is to let someone that’s intoxicated go to their dorm, then there’s a fire alarm, and they can’t take care of themselves,” he says.

UNR is considered a “dry” campus, meaning liquor is banned from all student-sponsored events that have underage participants. It also prohibits fraternities and sororities from holding parties where liquor is served. Regulated tailgate parties, university department-sponsored parties and events held in Lawlor Events Center and Mackay Stadium are exempt.

Renwick thinks the regulations are tough but necessary.

“We have elements that are different from other universities,” he says. “We have a 24-hour community; we border the downtown.”

Renwick says he realizes that students are coming to experience life on their own and understands that zero tolerance and reality are two different things.

“We hope to educate through enforcement. All I can ask is to be responsible. That’s looking at it in reality.”

Chuck Clement, director of Residential Life, Student Conduct and Safety, wants students to know that just because they are at college, they are not above the law.

“Kids get a misperception that it’s college so they can get away with anything. Thing is, our policies reflect state laws.”

Clement says he realizes incoming freshman will have lots of opportunities to do new things. His advice is to take it slow.

“Our job is to make sure the residents are OK,” Clement says. “If that means calling the police, that’s what we will have to do.”

Drinking to the point of incapacity is a problem on college campuses across the country. According to the Web site www.collegedrinkingprevention.gov, alcohol-related injuries account for the death of about 1,700 college students each year, and more than 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape every year. In addition, about 25 percent of college students report negative academic consequences due to excessive drinking.

Despite these statistics, many students are able to control their drinking before it gets out of hand. As for Wyatt B., he learned his lesson.

“It was a bad experience, but I don’t really regret it,” he says. “It definitely changed me; I stopped drinking for the whole semester. I concentrated on school more and got a much better GPA. At first, I felt so guilty because I broke the law, but now I’m grateful. It basically changed the way I thought about drinking.”