Should Colleges Tell Parents When Underage Students Drink Themselves Into Trouble?

What happens at college may no longer stay at college. That’s the case for freshmen at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor, who found a new policy on the books when the fall semester began this year: a pilot program that allows student health center staff to alert parents when a student receives two or more alcohol violations or one violation that requires medical attention or results in destruction of property.

off-to-college-main-200x200 2The goal of the new program, which is focused only on first-year students because they are seen as an at-risk population while transitioning to college, is to engage parents in conversation with their college-age child who finds him or herself in trouble. The university hopes the new initiative will reduce the frequency of underage drinking overall. Mary Jo Desprez, director of the Wolverine Wellness Center at the university, predicts the school may communicate with as many as 500 families this semester and next under the new initiative.

Other schools, including the University of Georgia and Virginia Tech, have similar parent-communication polices in place, and Desprez says the University of Michigan will evaluate the success of its pilot program at the end of the spring 2016 semester.

The just-launched program is being run by the wellness center because the university sees the new policy as a health issue rather than a disciplinary one. According to a recent story in USA Today, the University of Michigan saw an increase of 13% in alcohol and drug incidents in the last academic year: There were 465 incidents in the 2013-2014 school year, which was an increase of 61 incidents over the 2012-2013 school year, which had 404 incidents.

Does UM Have the Right to Turn Kids In?

Legally, the school is within its rights: Under the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), colleges are not allowed to communicate academic information to anyone — including parents paying the bills — unless a privacy waiver is signed by the student, even if the student is not 18. However, FERPA does allow, but does not require, colleges to contact parents if an underage student isMary Jo Desprez Pull Quot-02 found to be drinking alcohol or doing illegal drugs.

“We have good data that shows that the first year students are at risk as they transition from home to school. We know the first year can be a dangerous time,” says Desprez. “The point of the policy is to increase the network of support around students, and our students tell us that, often, they put their parents and families in that network of support.” Desprez says. The school hopes to intervene early, when students’ behavior is “outside of a moderate norm” to keep everyone in school.

Parents will be contacted when a student is written up for an incident that requires campus security, local police or 911 to be called to campus and/or if property is destroyed. A student will be notified first if the university plans to contact his or her parents, and if he or she indicates that the conversation could cause harm or not be useful, the university can find other ways to help the student. If parents are contacted, they will typically get an email that will include tips for how to have a conversation with their child about what happened and about substance use and abuse as well as how to access campus resources that can help.

At the end of the school year, the university plans to evaluate metrics such as the total number of notifications, hospital transfers and survey responses from parents who were contacted. Some evidence suggests programs like these may be helpful: A 2013 study at North Dakota State University looked at whether notifying a student’s parents about underage alcohol violations did any good. The data showed that telling parents served as a catalyst, recruiting parents to discuss drinking and drug use with their child.

Should Schools Notify Parents of All Underage Alcohol Infractions?

Not surprisingly, students and adults are split on the wisdom of the initiative. George Koob, PhD, director of the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, says he thinks alerting parents is helpful. “These are young people – many have never been away from home before – and I think the more communication between parent and child the better … assuming that the parent and child have even a moderately good relationship,” he says. “We don’t like it as parents, but kids do crazy things sometimes … that’s because their front cortex is not fully developed, and you have to expect from a biological standpoint that they are going to make mistakes.” And when they do misstep, what you really want them to do, says Dr. Koob, is to come to you or another trusted adult and say, “I screwed up, what I do?” And then, hopefully, parents and schools can help college kids get the resources they need, he adds.

Some experts are urging colleges to do more to curtail student drinking and using. “There is no magic bullet for reducing alcohol use among college students,” acknowledges Linda Richter, PhD, director of policy research and analysis of CASAColumbia, in New York City. “Parental or guardian notification, if implemented as a health-based, early intervention rather than a disciplinary measure, is one of several approaches to addressing the problem,” she says. “But such notification will not make a significant dent in the college student underage drinking problem if it is not accompanied by mandated [drug and alcohol] screening and, when indicated, brief interventions or treatment for any student who has violated a school’s alcohol policies.” Dr. Richter advocates a comprehensive approach that includes evidence-based prevention as well as controls on campus and community alcohol advertising and marketing.

What to Do If Your Child Gets a Violation

Erin Winstanley, PhD, an assistant professor of health outcomes at the University of Cincinnati, who has counseled adolescents and parents on drug abuse issues, says parents who are told their kid has had a serious incident at school involving alcohol should think through what they want to say before talking to their child. A key question to ask yourself, says Dr. Winstanley, is whether your son or daughter has some other mental health issues going on and might need an evaluation as well as counseling or other treatment.

Instead of feeling anger or embarrassment toward the university, parents can instead take advantage of the opportunity to get guidance and help from the school’s wellness and counseling staff, who can help you and your student set up an action plan to create a better, smoother transition to college life.

This article is part of the series Off to College 2015: The First Six Weeks.” To read more about how students can make a healthy transition to campus life, click here.

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