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Colleges enlist parents to curb problem drinking

At Virginia Tech, where tailgating and raucous apartment complex parties are time-honored rituals, university officials are turning increasingly to Mom and Dad to curb problem underage drinking.

In this photo made Monday, Feb. 22, 2010, Virginia Tech senior and resident adviser, David Dorsett, left, chats with fellow dorm resident and freshman Ross Cooper of Richmond, Va., at Lee Hall on the campus of Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va. (AP Photo/Don Petersen)

At Virginia Tech, where tailgating and raucous apartment complex parties are time-honored rituals, university officials are turning increasingly to Mom and Dad to curb problem underage drinking.

This semester, the school in Blacksburg, Va., began notifying parents when their younger-than-21 students are found guilty of even minor alcohol violations such as getting caught with a beer in a dorm room.

UND has a similar policy.

Although it's common for colleges to alert parents of major alcohol offenses -- or when a student faces suspension -- Virginia Tech is part of a small but growing number sending letters home on minor ones.

The debate about how much to involve parents in such cases is a balancing act for colleges and universities. Officials want to hold young adults accountable as they venture out on their own, are well aware that drinking is part of the college experience, and also recognize potential allies in a generation of hands-on parents who can help when things go too far.


"I think it helps students open up to parents," said Steven Clarke, director of Virginia Tech's College Alcohol Abuse Prevention Center. "And parents can be helpful in setting boundaries students might need."

UND's policy

For several years, UND has been using a stepped-up process of notifying families of students who get into some trouble, said Robert Boyd, UND's vice president of student outreach services.

"It has probably been at least five years ago that we started notifying parents when students were (caught) underage (drinking), and ... if there is some kind of crisis," Boyd said Sunday.

Because there are many different family arrangements, it's not always the student's parents who are notified, but perhaps grandparents, aunts or uncles or other adult guardians, so the process uses the word "family," Boyd said.

It's not every incident of a citation for a minor consuming alcohol that triggers the family notification process, he said.

"It depends on the circumstances. If for any reason a student is hospitalized or taken by ambulance, in that case, for sure we would notify family members. In other circumstances, it would depend on the severity of what has occurred."

This month, he can recall three cases of family members of students being notified after excessive, or what UND calls "high-risk" alcohol consumption led to students being taken, at least temporarily, to the hospital.


Virginia Tech

The beefed-up parental notification policy at Virginia Tech is part of a broader strategy that includes alcohol-education classes and a "party positive" program that encourages responsible drinking.

The student reaction to the policy change, not surprisingly, has been less than enthusiastic.

"If you have one beer in the dorm and you get caught, I don't feel like parents should be notified," said Erik Pryslak, a junior engineering major. "Now that we're all in college, we're all adults. It's kind of your responsibility to take care of yourself. If you want to make your parents aware you're about to be kicked out of school, then it's on you."

Studies show that students who say their parents would disapprove of them drinking are less likely to drink heavily once they get to college, said Toben Nelson, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health who has studied campus drinking.

At Virginia Tech, the school has operated on a "three strikes" system for years: Students get one strike for a minor alcohol violation and two for a major one -- things such as getting a DUI or vomiting all over a residence hall bathroom. Three strikes, and a student is suspended for at least one semester.

UND crisis team

At UND, the stepped-up notification process involves a crisis team has someone on duty 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Boyd said. If a situation comes to UND attention, perhaps from a police report or from students, the crisis worker notifies the dean of students, who then contacts Boyd as part of the process to determine if family members should be notified in the case.


"We have been very pleased with the responses we have gotten from families when that has occurred," Boyd said. "With rare exception, we have found family members to be very concerned, and many travel immediately to campus."

He can't remember any situations that led to permanent or critical injury to a student from high-risk drinking, Boyd said.

"We have been very fortunate."

Boyd said the term "high-risk" drinking is used, instead of binge drinking, because the amount of alcohol that is a risk to any person can vary greatly because of several factors, including size and gender.

"There is no doubt that on our campus, as is true on nearly every campus in the nation, the drug of choice is alcohol, and high-risk drinking is a major concern."

Changed laws

After a spate of alcohol-related deaths on college campuses, Congress in the late 1990s changed student privacy laws to lower barriers to parental notification in cases involving students younger than 21.

Schools took a wide array of approaches in response. Virginia Tech started notifying parents of younger-than-21 students after major alcohol offenses or when a student had accumulated two strikes with two minor ones.


But some parents complained that because they had not been notified of minor offenses, they were in the dark until a student was suddenly facing suspension, said Edward Spencer, Virginia Tech's vice president for student affairs. Hence, the change this semester -- a move Spencer said also reflects changing times.

Parents of Generation X students were often reluctant to get involved when the school invoked an emergency clause in privacy laws and alerted them of alcohol problems, he said.

"The response would be, 'You know, I'm leaving on a cruise. I'm going to a class reunion.'"

But today, parents of millennials tend to be tethered by cell phone to children who studies show often idolize their parents -- so it makes sense to go a step further in parental involvement, he said.

Grim statistic

Research has found more than 40 percent of college students reported at least one symptom of alcohol abuse or dependence. One recent study estimated that more than 500,000 full-time students at four-year colleges suffer injuries each year related to drinking, and about 1,700 die in such accidents.

"When it comes to safety, there really is a fine line," said Max DiSesa, a sophomore from Durham, N.H. "I completely understand Virginia Tech, and they want to keep people safe. But I think this might be overall detrimental to the growth of students."

Some universities already have found success alerting parents earlier. The University at Albany, State University of New York has seen a decline in repeat offenders since it began notifying parents students younger than 21 of minor alcohol violations four years ago, said Laurie Garafola, director of residential life.


"I don't send many second letters out to parents," she said.

At the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, the philosophy is different. The school -- which like many others stresses shared responsibility to parents and students during summer orientation -- does not notify parents of minor offenses. But parents are notified before any student younger than 21 is suspended.

"Part of students coming to college is to learn how to be a responsible adult -- and hopefully learn from their mistakes," said Patricia Leonard, vice chancellor for student affairs.

This report contains material from Eric Gorski of The Associated Press and Stephen J. Lee of the Herald.

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