Inconsistent alcohol policy leads to student confusion, discipline

Around 6 p.m. the afternoon of Friday’s Walk In Lay Down event, a small group of students were sitting in a freshman’s JKL room, with sealed bottles of alcohol visible and the door open, when they say a residential college director entered the suite. The RCD, who was from another residential college, insisted that they were playing drinking games before writing up all of the students present.

According to one of the students at the party, who wished to remain anonymous, the RCD made them pour all of the alcohol in the suite into the sink. She said the RCD was only in their dorm because of a louder party on the top floor—which was allegedly broken up without any of the students getting written up.

Their door was open because of the residential advisor-enforced open-door rule, in which even underage students are expected to keep their doors open while drinking so residential advisors can make sure they are safe. But that rule didn’t hold when the RCD walked in.

“We could have had the door closed and been drinking quietly and we wouldn’t have gotten in trouble, but we didn’t,” the student said. “[You’re] f—ed if you do and f—ed if you don’t. If you follow the RA’s rules, you’ll get in trouble with the RCD, but if you follow the RCD’s rules, the RAs will be upset.”

Washington University’s unofficial alcohol policy is designed to prevent underage drinking only when it is repeated, dangerous, disruptive or flagrant—known to upperclassmen as ReDD Flag, though that terminology has been discontinued. But Missouri law mandates the school’s official policy—students cannot drink until they are 21.

The discord between official and unofficial alcohol policy leads to misunderstandings and student assumptions with ramifications beyond temporary inebriation.

On the third night of orientation, about 40-50 students allegedly flooded a freshman suite in Park House when an RA from another floor came in to ask them to turn down their music. A few minutes later, multiple RAs from other floors came in, kicked out all of the guests, had the residents of the suite pour out their alcohol and wrote down their names.

According to one of the students, the Park/Mudd RCD later told them that first-year students are not allowed to consume alcohol, and if they are caught, then their parents are called. A week after the incident, she found the students, took down their parents’ numbers and said she would call them.

The same student believes the write-up was the only thing that kept him from getting accepted to the Emergency Support Team.

“Apparently, they have a zero-tolerance policy for alcohol write-ups. I didn’t get in because I got in trouble on the third night I was here,” he said.

Though many of the students were upset about the treatment they received from the RCD, they noted that their own RAs were very nice about the incident and even apologized. But at that point, there was nothing they could do.

Alcohol policy is primarily enforced by RAs whose first priority is to keep students on their floors safe. But the “open-door policy” they use to accomplish this is not an official policy of the University and thus other University staff may not follow it, Justin Carroll, associate vice chancellor for students, said.

“We don’t expect the RAs to be policemen when it comes to students’ use of alcohol. The history of RAs within the community is one seen as a resource,” Carroll said.

The transition from substance-free floors to sub-free individual suites has done little to dispel student confusion over University policy, which can vary between different housing options and even within particular residential halls. Fraternity houses, for example, are governed by their own alcohol policy.

“The reality is that we know from experience, even though the law says that you need to be 21 to drink, college students do drink,” said Carroll. “We’re trying not to isolate the people who want a substance-free experience…There are students that hold themselves to a higher standard, and we want to be supportive of that.”

Freshman Natalie Gehred said she appreciates the University’s alcohol policy even though she finds it confusing.

“It’s interesting that we have sub-free dorms because technically we should all be sub-free under Missouri state law until we’re 21, but I like the fact that Wash. U. recognizes that it happens…and they allow us to make our own responsible decisions about it,” she said.

In some cases, the question might be more whether students care to follow University policy than whether they know it exists. At least during and before W.I.L.D., some students regarded the policy as more flexible than usual, and most of them were not written up.

One student in a Social Programming Board shirt posted a video of himself emptying a champagne bottle into his Lucky Charms in the “Overheard at WashU” Facebook group. A freshman who wished to remain anonymous claimed to have buried a bottle of Smirnoff vodka in Brookings Quadrangle last week, to exhume during the W.I.L.D. festivities. And at least one group of freshmen allegedly served “jungle juice” out of a borrowed Wydown Water dispenser at a suite party before the start of W.I.L.D.

“W.I.L.D. has changed—it went from an event where a large amount of alcohol could be brought in to the third-party vendor solution, which I think of all of the solutions seems to be the best one to have in place. But it results in pre-partying,” Don Strom, director of campus police, said. “Each W.I.L.D. is different. Some W.I.L.D.s we have where seemingly few more people are being treated than a normal Friday or Saturday night, and we’ve had other W.I.L.D.s where seemingly a lot of people are being treated.”

Concern over alcohol safety extends even to the highest levels of the University’s administration.

“I’m concerned about alcohol abuse, maybe more than any kind of worry that I have—like what keeps you up at night. I’m actually a very good sleeper, but I sleep right next to the telephone. I dread that phone ringing in the night because it’s almost never going to be good news,” Chancellor Mark Wrighton said. “It troubles me when EST responds and when people are taken to the hospital. No person wants a student to lose their life because they’ve made a misjudgment about how much alcohol they’ve consumed.”

Risa Zwerling, his wife, said the couple received five calls about hospitalized students after Friday night’s W.I.L.D. She noted that the number was more than usual.

Strom was unable to give an exact count of alcohol-related incidents this year, but he noted that alcohol use tends to accompany most of the incidents that they deal with.

Strom noted that the police have found in most cases of sexual assault on campus that either the suspect or the survivor was intoxicated during the episode. In general, when people engage in behavior that is brought to their attention, hard alcohol tends to be a common factor.

“You’ve been selected to come to Washington University because you’ve demonstrated some level of responsibility in your life, so we’re going to treat you as a responsible individual. We’re not going to go around searching people’s rooms to see if you have alcohol. On the other hand, if you bring yourself to our attention, we’re going to respond to that,” Strom said.

While many students have voiced confusion over the University’s enforcement of its alcohol policies, others say they appreciate the general freedom they are given.

“What college allows for public drinking on an academic campus like with W.I.L.D.?” freshman August Passov said.

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