From the Daily: Nuance lacking in new alcohol policy

Monday, September 7, 2015 - 7:00pm

In a brief August 25 e-mail to all University students, E. Royster Harper, vice president for student life, announced the University will implement “additional strategies” in its continuous effort to reduce students’ alcohol consumption. The widely publicized pilot program will notify parents of first-year students under the age of 21 who receive a second alcohol or drug violation, or “a violation accompanied by other serious behavior such as needing medical attention, significant property damage or driving under the influence.” Harper also wrote that the University of Michigan Police Department and the Ann Arbor Police Department will collaborate further on outreach efforts. Though the ultimate goal is to have joint jurisdiction in off-campus student neighborhoods, UMPD will initially “provide early engagement and feedback to students to help them better understand how to avoid being in violation of alcohol laws.” How these strategies will be put into practice remains to be seen. 

It’s understandable that the e-mail was concise, for if it were longer it may have gone unread. But that came at the price of omitting critical information, as discovered in a recent Michigan Daily interview with University officials. A subsequent article published by the University Record on Sep. 1 also failed to provide full details. In the interview, University officials explained first and foremost that these changes focus on wellness and caring, not enforcement and punishment — a key point not mentioned in the e-mail or Record article. This focus appears to lend itself toward a necessary changing of the culture surrounding alcohol on campus, but much needs to clarified.

Clarification should begin with the decision to notify parents in the event of certain alcohol violations. Mary Jo Desprez, director of Wolverine Wellness, said in the interview parents will be provided ways to have a conversation with their child that focuses on “constructive, non-judgmental early intervention.” The policy change appears to perpetuate the idea that our generation is immature. However, Desprez emphasized that the typical student values frequent communication with their parents, so the University is simply tapping into students’ support networks when trouble appears to be on the horizon. As it turns out, whether or not the University contacts a student’s parents is flexible and will be determined on a case-by-case basis, which is not said in Harper's e-mail or the Record article. If contacting the student’s parents or other caregiver is likely to cause more harm than good for the student, as determined by Wolverine Wellness, then they will not be contacted. Why the University chose to not include this nuance is confusing given how crucial that point is.

Similarly, details are hard to find in UMPD’s initiative to increasing community policing efforts in regard to alcohol use in off-campus neighborhoods. Beginning immediately, UMPD will be partnering even more with the Ann Arbor Police Department to expand outreach.

“The Division of Public Safety and Security is now mobilizing in a way where we want to be more preventive, and the enforcement piece is more on the tail-end,” said DPSS Executive Director Eddie Washington in a Daily interview. “It’s more to be proactive, so if you’re at the party, the idea is that we’ve already talked to you ahead of time.”

These are noble intentions, but how this outreach will be executed is still fuzzy. Harper explained to the Daily that this engagement includes police officers educating the community about preventing “harmful” behavior. This week, UMPD officers knocked on students’ doors hoping to create a dialogue between officers and students about safe party and alcohol use procedures. However, questions as to whether organizations, such as Greek life institutions or co-ops, must engage with police first and the exact methods to be used for outreach still need to be answered. Also, according to Washington, another jurisdiction agreement is being assembled that, if signed, would allow both UMPD and AAPD to have the ability to educate and also ticket violators.

With 45 percent of students admitting to binge drinking in a 2014 National College Health Assement survey conducted by the University Health System, it’s clear that our campus has problems with alcohol. But right now, there are far too many ambiguities to know how this initiative will play out — and that’s the problem. The University needs to take steps to better describe the complete program to the general student body as to not leave students more confused than they would be on a drunken night at Skeeps. But if the University can get its act together quickly on this matter and figure out the nuances, there is the potential for positive change.