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What colleges tell parents about how they address drug and alcohol issues on their campuses

A parent receives mixed messages from schools
University Business, March 2017

In looking at colleges for both of my children, one male and one female, I was particularly concerned about the environment on campus and within student housing especially after reading various articles online. As with any parent, there is a lot of anxiety with the child leaving home for the first time. We all feel that we have done the best we can raising our children but we never can tell exactly how the child will respond to the various pressures and freedoms they experience while living on a college campus.

I felt really good about what I was hearing on the campuses I was visiting with my children. Our hosts made me feel very comfortable that wherever my children ended up, the colleges would help with their transition from living at home to living on their own within the confines of a very safe campus environment. However, some of the answers I received bothered me a little. Not that I wasn’t getting direct answers, it was just that sometimes I would get a different answer depending on who I would ask. This served as my motivation to find out more about how colleges were really handling various issues on campus.

I could not find any comprehensive information on what various schools were trying to do to improve the chances of students succeeding in college, particularly related to problems associated with drug and alcohol use. There have been many, many studies done regarding drug and alcohol use among college students, there are great school websites, and there are articles talking about special programs which some schools have implemented to address these concerns. However, there is no resource to show that colleges have a common direction with regards to how the epidemic of drug and alcohol use with young adults is being addressed on college campuses. This is when I decided I would ask 50 schools, the largest college in each state, a series of mostly very simple questions related to the issues I had been researching.

What they said

The questions I asked where primarily the result of earlier dialogue with school officials, doctors, parents, counselors, law enforcement, and others. The following are two examples of the 24 questions I asked, how the question was asked, and some of the reasoning behind my asking the question. I then listed some of the responses I received from various colleges.

Does the school have any policies other than the current State law regarding synthetic drugs?       YES    NO      OTHER

I may have misread some responses I received over the last several months. I believe many of the school personnel (not law enforcement) think that when you ask about synthetic drugs you are only talking about synthetic marijuana. When I asked about the school’s policy on spice, molly, bath salts, NBOM and others they don’t seem to understand the extent of the synthetic drug industry and how many kids, many of them college students, have been killed in the past decade taking synthetic drugs. Some colleges do understand the problem with some synthetic drugs being legal by State law and address the issue at their school by declaring them illegal on their campus. Part of the problem is that the colleges have the same problems as law enforcement- keeping up with the frequent develop of new synthetic drugs. If you don’t know which drugs are being invented, it makes it difficult to have a policy towards that particular drug.

  • University of Florida: The University referenced state law which lists an extensive list of illegal synthetic drugs/substances.
  • University of Alaska Anchorage: The school indicated that they have a policy regarding the use or possession of synthetic drugs/substances.
  • University of Maine: The school indicated that they have a policy regarding the use or possession of synthetic drugs/substances.
  • University of Iowa: The school references state law and also treats cases as self-destructive
  • behavior if the substance is not illegal by state law.

Does the campus have substance free dorms (I delineated what was meant by substance free housing)?   YES     NO      OTHER

When I asked about campus substance free housing I quickly learned my mistake in asking the question. The response from almost everyone I spoke with was “Of course we have substance free housing. All alcohol and drugs are prohibited in student housing”. When I explained what I was really asking with regards to substance free housing, I got a much different answer. In the past 15 or so years, some colleges started to understand that something had to change in campus housing. In 2010, approximately 20 colleges offered a type of substance free housing. Now there are over 150 colleges that off the students this alternative. Students should be allowed to live in housing, if they chose to, which is free from pot odors, vomit in the bathrooms, or just free from the intoxicated behavior exhibited by fellow students partying on weekends and often throughout the week. Some students either do not want to live in an environment where they are one of the few that don’t want to participate in that behavior or they are in that at-risk group that does not need to be in that type environment. The substance free housing includes several different types of housing depending upon what environment the colleges that have substance free housing believe best meets the needs of their students.

  • University of Florida: The University has not considered substance free housing.
  • University of Alaska Anchorage: Yes
  • University of Maine: Has had substance free housing in the past but demand has diminished and housing is not available this year. The University is considering housing on a smaller scale for the 2017- 2018 school year.
  • University of Iowa:  The University is presently considering recovery housing.

In lieu of filling out my questionnaire, some of the schools responded with a letter explaining why they would not answer my questions. Some responses included:

  • South Dakota State University: Referred me to their website and stated that if the information was not on their website, the information “is not a record or document maintained or filed by South Dakota State University”. (Note: Don’t really understand what I was being told).
  • University of Wisconsin- Madison: Referenced the schools participation in “several nationally benchmarked surveys” and declined to answer my questions. Their letter closed saying if I had additional questions I should contact the school. (Note: Declined to answer any of my questions and closed by saying I should contact them with any additional questions).
  • University of Tennessee: Referred to the school’s various websites include the University Police Department, Center for Health Education and Wellness, and Community Standards. They stated that “several important details were left out of your cover letter regarding the manner in which you intend to publish the data you are collecting. For this reason, we have elected not to participate in your survey”.

I know the 50 schools I contacted have programs in place to address drug and alcohol concerns. I read about these programs on the schools websites. Some schools have told me that other schools have major drug and alcohol problems but not their school.

For example, I was told:

  • that drugs such as heroin, synthetic drugs, and others are not easily available on their campus.
  • that bringing drug dogs on campus would violate the students’ rights.
  • the students are responsible for their own actions.
  • that there is no need for substance free housing on campus- that all housing is substance free.
  • students are not leaving school due to drug and alcohol issues but some schools don’t even ask the students why they are leaving.
  • that synthetic drugs are not a problem on the school’s campus.
  • that the campuses are safe but campus law enforcement state they are often handicapped by housing and the administration in how they enforce laws.
  • that the colleges provide support for at-risk students but then the schools place them in an environment of high risk.
  • that colleges are places for open discussion—yet when they are asked several simple questions about concerns any parent might have, most schools don’t want to answer those questions.

The schools have promised a safe environment for all students- not just the students that can handle to drugs and alcohol. The environment provided at some schools will not only make it difficult for many of the at-risk students to succeed, it will ensure that many of them will fail. All we are asking is for schools to understand the role they play in the students’ lives. It is a much different role than it has been in the past and the schools and the administration have to change. They have to provide an environment that gives all students, even the at-risk student a chance to succeed. The change needs to be made now and not tomorrow. We have no time to waste.

Dan Reider is manager of mechanical engineering at Buford Goff and Associates. The opinions expressed above are his.

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