A legal drinking age of 21 prevents high-risk drinking among college students, right?
Umm … not so fast. Over 100 college presidents have signed onto the Amethyst Initiative, a petition calling for a national conversation on rethinking the drinking age.
Already there’s a predictable counterreaction, as the Columbus Dispatch reports:
… Mothers Against Drunk Driving says that lowering the drinking age would lead to more fatal car crashes and urges parents to think carefully about the safety of colleges whose presidents have signed on.
“It’s very clear the 21-year-old drinking age will not be enforced at those campuses,” said Laura Dean-Mooney, MADD’s national president.
Joining with MADD is Nationwide, which released a survey last week indicating 72 percent of adults think lowering the drinking age would make alcohol more accessible to minors, and nearly half think it would increase binge drinking among teens.
But here’s the thing: Unlike the general public, college presidents have a close-up view of underage drinking. A lot of them apparently realize that neo-prohibition has failed miserably on their campuses. Students engage in binge drinking partly because they have to do it on the sly. So they front-load their evenings, drinking heavily behind closed doors, before they mosey out to the bars or parties where they might not be served.
I have an even closer view of the issue because my students have talked to me frankly about it. A year ago, I took an informal in-class poll of who had gotten in trouble for alcohol violations. At least a third of my students in two different sections of 40 raised their hands. That makes roughly 25 students, mostly freshmen and sophomores, whose college careers were threatened with derailment. Those who raised their hands are only the ones who got caught and were willing to admit to it in public; the true number is probably somewhat higher. Even those who’d never been caught – including most of the teetotalers – saw the system as capricious and unfair.
The result? Diligent, responsible students are threatened with suspension if they get caught twice with alcohol in their dorm rooms. They don’t need to be drinking themselves, they merely need to be in the same room as friends who are imbibing. I’ve written letters imploring student judiciaries to go easy on students who’ve been swept up in this trap. Alcohol infractions clog the judiciary system, crowding out plagiarism cases and diverting attention from much more serious violations of policy.
Not least, as long as drinking is criminalized, students are much less likely to report sexual assault. Alcohol is almost always in the mix when college students experience unwanted sexual contact. The Kyle Payne case is only an especially infamous and egregious instance of this. Every sexual assault case that I know about first-hand involved alcohol. But the current approach – “just don’t drink and you’ll be safe” – is a failure.
I’m not naive enough to think that irresponsible drinking will disappear if alcohol becomes legal on campus. I was an RA for two years in college. I was also a student, fer goodness sake. I did enough stupid things to have a permanent aversion to tequila.
But because I was an RA in the dark ages (1984-86), I also know that things can be different. We RAs bought the alcohol for dorm parties. (Okay, I know that won’t fly anymore! You’d get your butt sued.) With social life centered in the residences, we could easily keep tabs on our charges. Sure, people still regularly overindulged. But we knew who was overdoing it, and we made sure they were cared for.
As far as I know, no one was ever sexually assaulted on my watch. It might have happened without my knowing; that’s in the nature of acquaintance rape. Certainly in the mid-1980s, “date rape” – as it was then called – was such a new concept, few women would have applied it to nonconsensual sex.
Still, we had a safety net, composed not just of RAs but of friends and dorm-mates and resident faculty. I’m positive that this averted lots of potentially ugly situations. Often, I was part of that net. On more than one occasion, I was the person it protected.
I’d love to bring back that net. Although Gordon Gee of Ohio State has signed the Amethyst petition, the president of my university has not, and I’m sure he won’t. My university has a reputation as a party school. Signing the petition could create a short-term PR problem. But in the long run, bringing alcohol use out of the shadows is the first step toward fostering a more responsible drinking culture.