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One Saturday night last fall, a 19-year-old sophomore at American University turned up unconscious, curled into a ball near some bushes on the school’s quad. Fearing that he might be suffering from alcohol poisoningor something worsethe students who found him called 911.
The next morning, the sophomore woke up in Sibley Hospital. He recalled having tossed back a few bottles of Corona at an off-campus party the night before but says now he doesn’t remember whether he was “trashed” or not. Doctors told him he might have passed out from drinking, he says, but tests were inconclusive. After a few more hours of observation, he checked out and went back to the dorms.
“I thought it was a dead issue,” he says. “I hadn’t broken any rules.” The District’s underage-drinking laws notwithstanding, AU student handbook bars only the on-campus use or possession of drugs or alcohol. There is no university rule against drinking somewhere else and coming back to campus drunk.
Yet a few days later, the sophomorewho wishes to remain anonymous to avoid further trouble with the administrationwas summoned to the university’s student-affairs office. There, a dean informed him that, because he’d been taken from campus in an ambulance, he would be required to attend a seminar on drug and alcohol awareness.
The hourlong sessions, held at Sibley, would run daily at 8 a.m. for a week. The counseling would cost $40, and if the student missed a session or was even a minute late, he would be charged a $300 fine and might face other punishment from the university, including possible suspension.
“I immediately asked why they were doing thiswhat was the causeand I was told that it was because I had been taken away in an ambulance drunk,” he says.
Over the last year, AU has tightened its student-conduct policies in response to what officials there describe as an epidemic of drug and alcohol use by students. AU’s medical-transport policy, updated two years ago, states that all students taken by ambulance for reasons of drug or alcohol abuse are subject to “punitive action” by the university. Most often, according to the university’s student-affairs office, that action is limited to fines and the weeklong education program.
According to AU, 30 students participated in the mandatory seminars during the 2001-2002 school year. This year, with the end of the spring semester still to come, 33 students have been sent to the sessions.
“If we suspect a student is abusing drugs or alcohol, we have to step in,” says Sara Waldron, assistant dean of students at American. “This is about protecting their health, keeping them safe.”
Yet some students contend that the medical-transport policy is too aggressive, threatening their privacy and safety. According to the university’s Student Advocacy Center, which represents students in campus judicial proceedings, university officials have interrogated campus residents after ambulance rides caused by things other than drugs and alcohol.
AU public-safety officers, who often make on-the-scene decisions about whether a student needs to go to the hospital, also have been known to question responding emergency medical technicians about whether a student has been drinking. In some cases, officers have even overruled EMTs and students, insisting that someone be taken to the hospital.
In March, sophomore Alex Davin, 20, was walking back to his dorm after an off-campus party when he was intercepted by a public-safety officer. Davin, who admits he had been drinking but says he wasn’t stumbling or belligerent, says the officer prevented him from entering his dorm and demanded to see his identification.
“He asked me if I was OK, and I said yes,” Davin says. “But he insisted on calling an ambulance, even though I was perfectly fine.”
When the emergency technicians arrived, Davin says, they checked his blood pressure and other medical signs, all of which registered normal. One of the workers told the officer that Davin didn’t need medical attention, but after calling a supervisor, the officer insisted that he be taken to the hospital for further checking. By then, at least two other officers had arrived on the scene as backup.
“I told him that I didn’t want to go, that I was perfectly OK, and that I didn’t want to have to pay for a hospital visit,” Davin says. “I asked for a form to sign showing that I was rejecting treatment, but one of the officers told me that my signature wasn’t worth shit.”
Davin was taken to Sibley and released just an hour later. A nurse had given him a bucket and some towels to take home, just in case he felt sick in the morning, but by the time he left, he says, he was completely sober. In early April, he was called to the first of several meetings with Waldron, who ultimately decided not to pursue action against him. Some students say it is stories like Davin’s that discourage them from seeking medical help.
“In some cases, you have students here who really need to go to the hospital, whether it be for something serious like alcohol poisoning or something not so serious, like maybe a sprained ankle, who just won’t call for help because they are scared of getting into trouble,” says Matt Ehlers, a senior who works at the Student Advocacy Center. “People that have had one or two drinkswho clearly aren’t drunkwon’t call because they are scared.”
According to students, some campus residents have been taking dramatic steps to avoid the university’s intervention process. Instead of calling 911 from their dorm rooms, some students, according to Ehlers, now leave campus before calling for assistance, in some cases walking just a few feet to the parking lot of a nearby church. Others, meanwhile, have walked to residential streets surrounding AU, or to the Wesley Theological Seminarylocated next door to the universitybefore calling for help.
“It’s a dangerous situation,” Ehlers says.
Local universities have varying rules when it comes to students and drinking. If a student requires medical attention as a result of drinking or drugs, Georgetown University, for instance, hands out violations only if a university official, such as a public-safety cop, is the one who summons 911. In such cases, Georgetown students are required to appear before a judicial panel consisting of university officials and studentsand the incident may be noted on their student records.
At AU, students taken to the hospital for suspected alcohol use do not go through the usual judicial channels. Instead, Waldron handles the cases individually and is the ultimate judge when it comes to whether a student will be sent to education programs or subject to further discipline.
“This keeps any mention of this event off their record, and it allows us to weigh each case on an individual basis,” Waldron says.
But the sophomore who was sent to counseling questions the handling of his case. When he asked university officials for proof that he had been intoxicated, he says, they offered none. “They told me that public-safety officers had said I looked drunk, but they had not spoken to my doctor or anyone about my condition that night. I could have suffered a seizure, for all they know,” he says. “But the essential response to me was ‘Prove to me you weren’t drunk,’ which I thought was a little unfair.”
Davin agrees. Though his case was dropped, he received a bill from Sibley
Hospital for $99after, he says, AU officials had told him there would be no cost for his emergency-room visit.
“When you are told to come to an office for a meeting, they tell you that it will be very informal, that you don’t have to worry about lawyers or bringing witnesses, but in reality, it’s a lot of pressure,” Davin says. “If you don’t know your rights, you are screwed, because the attitude is very much what they say goes.”
Waldron disputes this account, noting that educational programs on drugs and alcohol shouldn’t be regarded as punishment and insisting that every student’s rights are protected.
“We aren’t out to get people,” Waldron says. “But we can’t afford to stand by and let our students engage in what is ultimately reckless behavior. It’s dangerous for everybody.” CP