Committee considers alcohol policy changes

by Parker Richards | 9/25/14 7:12pm

The “Moving Dartmouth Forward” presidential steering committee will likely propose amendments to alcohol policy as part of its recommendations to reduce harmful behaviors at the College. The committee’s research follows changes in alcohol policy at peer institutions, including approaches that ban hard alcohol, prohibit drinking games and encourage open doors at social gatherings in residence halls.

The committee, convened by College President Phil Hanlon in May to examine high-risk drinking, sexual assault and inclusivity, is expected to present recommendations to the Board of Trustees in January. Committee chair English professor Barbara Will confirmed that it will likely suggest changes to the College’s alcohol policy in a Thursday email.

During a closed meeting with Greek organization leaders on Sept. 16, Hanlon and Board of Trustees Chair Bill Helman urged a reevaluation of student drinking, adult oversight of social spaces and freshman safety.

At the meeting, which came several days before the Intrafraternity Council announced its decision to eliminate fall pledge term, Will brought up the idea of an “open door policy,” which would mandate that a room’s door remain open if a large group of people were in the room simultaneously.

When asked to comment on innovative alcohol policies at other universities, Will noted in an email that some schools have banned hard alcohol on campus.

“This might be seen as innovative depending on how it is enforced,” she wrote in an email, citing Bates College, Bowdoin College, Colby College and Stanford University as examples. She declined to comment further due to the committee’s ongoing work.

Several of Dartmouth’s peer institutions — including Bates, Bowdoin, Colby and Stanford — prohibit hard alcohol at registered campus events. Swarthmore College established a ban in August.

Bowdoin’s ban prohibits all liquor with an alcohol content higher than 10 percent in college residences, as well as drinking games like pong and flip cup. Colby initially banned all hard alcohol over 48 proof, but later redefined hard alcohol to include any alcoholic beverage aside from beer and wine, The Colby Echo reported in 2011, a year after the ban was put in place.

Bowdoin, which enacted its ban in the 1990s, reported fewer than 20 alcohol-related hospitalizations a year from 2005 to 2010. Colby, comparable is size with a policy that took effect in 2010, recorded around 300 in the same period, The Colby Echo reported.

These are not the only new alcohol policies introduced in the past few years.

Stanford, for example, uses an “open door” policy, which encourages students to leave residence doors open when large groups socialize. The policy aimed to reduce potential fear of residential staff or harsh discipline for students caught drinking, said Stanford associate dean of student affairs Ralph Castro, who noted that the policy does not mandate open doors but simply encourages them. Castro directs Stanford’s office of alcohol policy and education.

“It’s not necessarily about alcohol,” he said. “It’s about openness. It allows the staff to observe what is happening and intervene when appropriate.”

Castro said that the university has seen “some slight levelling out and reductions in relation to shots and pre-gaming behavior” since the inception of the open door policy, but student alcohol use has not declined markedly.

“We’re at war with vomiting, we’re at war with blackouts, we’re at war with people doing things that harm themselves or other people,” he said.

Any open door policy implemented at Dartmouth would need to comply with existing laws regarding underage drinking, said Caitlin Barthelmes, who works in the College’s office student health promotion and wellness.

Policies should be tailored to specific colleges and communities, said Laura Forbes, the former chair of the American College Health Association’s Alcohol, Tobacco, and Other Drug Coalition.

“There is no one-size-fits-all approach to a particular campus,” Forbes said. “Each campus’s culture of drinking is different.”

Students and faculty alike need to understand their institutional policies, said Dolores Cimini, assistant director for prevention and program evaluation at the State University of New York at Albany. Cimini said that policies should use clear language and ensure consistent enforcement.

In addition to hard alcohol bans, some institutions, including Bowdoin and Swarthmore, have banned drinking games at public campus events. Many institutions require all licensed social events with alcohol to meet tight restrictions.

The College implemented new alcohol and harm reduction policies in fall 2012 that included random Safety and Security fraternity walkthroughs and harsher punishment for houses caught serving pre-made batch drinks, also known as punch.

At Dartmouth, officially recorded instances of alcohol abuse are declining, Barthelmes said. Instances of alcohol abuse recorded by the college’s Safety and Security officers have fallen from 123 in the 2010 fall term to 83 in the 2013 fall term, while instances in which a student had a potentially lethal blood alcohol content above 0.25 declined from 36 to seven in the same period.

Barthelmes said that no specific policy or program was primarily responsible for the decline, but cited the Greek Leadership Council’s six-week ban on freshmen in Greek houses as a key factor. The policy is in its second year this fall.