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Alcohol policy “ring” sparks discussion, reveals student concerns

By
December 5, 2005

On November 30th in the Alice Paul Lounge, around thirty students gathered for a panel discussion on the possible changes to the alcohol policy.

The first of the four panelists to speak was Karen Lorang ’07, Campus Life representative for Student Council and member of the Dean’s Advisory Committee. Lorang told the crowd that Student Council had identified four key problems. Three of these focus on safety: a new response protocol for emergencies ought to be worked out, the Party Associates should be given better training, and the campus needs better education about alcohol.

The last problem is that the school must stop its de facto funding of alcohol for reasons of potential legal liability. As a result, enforcement of SAC funding will become more strict. Not only has the administration been alerted to the most prevalent “work-arounds,” but SAC will start asking party proposers specifically about where they’re getting money for alcohol, SBC will have the original party proposal in hand when checking receipts, and party hosts will be required to sign a contract explicitly stating that none of their SAC funds are going for alcohol. For Lorang, the most important question for the student body to be asking right now is “How can social life and SAC respond to these changes?”

With three years of PA experience under his belt, Arthur Chu ’06 has “encountered enough irresponsible use of alcohol during my three years of PA experience that I can and do have opinions.” Chu’s opinions are well-known to anyone who reads his Phoenix column “Chu on This,” but the panel gave him an opprtunity to better elaborate them.

Chu is bothered by the fact that getting SAC-funded alcohol “involves a lot of lying for the sake of maintaining the fiction that nothing illegal is going on,” and believes that this fosters a “cover-up culture.” But the crux of his argument is that by funding alcohol, the school has become an extralegal system. Unnecessary barriers have been erected between the campus and Swarthmore’s police and emergency medical services.

If anything should ever happen to a student here, the school could be facing huge lawsuits. Knowing this, claims Chu, the school has mixed motives when trying to keep students safe. “The focus isn’t ‘How can we keep this student safe?’, it’s ‘How can we keep this student safe without getting into legal hotwater?’” Even non-drinking students shouldn’t dismiss this as unimportant, as “it will be our tutition dollars rising if the school gets into legal trouble.” In order to prevent this from happening, “we need to get rid of ‘Call Public Safety first’ and we need to get rid of SAC-funded alcohol.”

Jonathan Petkun ’07 spoke from the perspective of having attended Dartmouth for a year before transferring to Swarthmore as a sophomore. Darthmouth is known as a big drinking school “for good reason,” recalled Petkun, and has similar policies to Swarthmore’s as regards building a legal shield and calling campus safety first, although Dartmouth, unlike Swarthmore “explicitly funds fraternity alcohol.”

However, in Petkun’s opinion “an alcohol culture is more important than an alcohol policy,” and at Swarthmore we have “a good culture.” He fears that requiring students to call 911 first could discourage students from getting any help at all for fear of receiving an alcohol citation. He thinks that the “Good Samaritan immunity” granted to students who may have been drinking, but acted to help their sick friends, is a crucial policy to keep. At Dartmouth, the absence of this policy caued students to hole up in their rooms trying to avoid trouble instead of acting to help their friends. “It’s problematic if we don’t call 911 and it’s problematic if we do,” concluded Petkun, “so we need to find a way to balance the two.”

Caitlin Markowitz ’07 is an EMT at the local hospital. She stated first that “students are unduly parannoid about the police and the possibility of an alcohol citation,” when a citation is “not the worst thing in the world.” She also stressed that “the cops don’t care that you’re drinking, they care that you’re being stupid… there’s not an adequate understanding here, or on most campuses, that alcohol is not an excuse.”

With that said, she agreed with Chu that “Call Public Safety first” is not the best policy, and worries that it focuses on keeping the school safe rather than protecting the students. She would like to see a more serious freshman orientation workshop about alcohol and safety, including instruction on when it’s vital to get professionals involved.

On a personal level, however, said Markowitz, “I love the fact that the college doesn’t crack down on drinking… I like that we can be relaxed about it.” Whatever the new direction of the alcohol policy, she hopes that Swarthmore can “continue to allow students not to have to hide their drinking, but also not to promote stupidity in the name of treating us like adults.”

The discussion that followed began with student’s concerns about Public Safety and the Party Associates. Students generally agreed that Party Associates need more training, and Chu in particular would like to see “more training that emphasizes absolute rules… there’s peer pressure not to be the person who breaks up a party, but if there were absolute rules about when you must break up a party, Party Associates would be more effective at their jobs.”

After some time, the conversation shifted to concerns about the social scene at Swarthmore post-SAC-funding-of-alcohol. Some students expressed concern that the fraternities would consume the party scene at Swarthmore, but most believed that “Swattie ingenuity” would be able to overcome that danger.

Most students don’t want to lose the “free activities” so important to Swarthmore culture, but a few students pointed out the fallacy of equating “activities” with “Paces parties.” These students hoped that the crackdown on alcohol funding would inspire “more open thinking about the student activities fee,” inspiring proposals for new social events instead of more “tired” Paces parties.

While new types of social events would certainly be a refreshing change, there will always be a drinking scene on campus, and many students have a stake in what the new drinking scene will look like.

If all parties with alcohol become pay-parties, warned one student, “we run the risk of reinscribing class values on this campus.” Furthermore, since only drinkers would be willing to pay the fee, pay-parties would “take away the culture where everyone goes to parties together… we want to keep drinkers and non-drinkers together.”

Some parties might sell wristbands to those who wished to drink alcohol and allow non-drinkers to attend for free, but that raises the question of whether SAC money could fund parties where wristbands were sold, a question Lorang said “has not yet been decided.”

Could the college fund alcohol for over-21s only? This would come with a whole new host of problems, explained Lorang, and “while it’s what Pomona does… it’s not a direction we’re looking into.”

More likely is some sort of “opt-in alcohol fee” like Haverford’s. In that scenario, drinkers would pay money every semester, or every year, to receive some sort of token that would allow them to receive alcohol at parties. In this way, money for alcohol wouldn’t be coming from the college but from the pockets of the individual students.

While one student warned that “if you adopt an opt-in policiy, students won’t feel they’re getting their money’s worth… they’ll buy their own alcohol instead,” this policy would have the advantage of not forcing non-drinking students to fund the alcohol consumption of others, as they do now through the student activities fee.

The night ended without any clear answers, but with many fledgling ideas. Lorang encouraged everyone to keep thinking about what they wanted out of social life at Swarthmore, saying “this is the one place where we can actually make a difference… these are the most productive dialogues for students to be having.”