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Freshman Year

University of Michigan Alcohol Policy Is Strict, But Could Prevent Tragedy

A few days before Randi Olin dropped her daughter off at the University of Michigan for the first time, she read some surprising news: The school would be notifying parents of freshmen if their kids get caught violating alcohol and drug policy.

The pilot program, announced by Michigan last month, aims to curb substance abuse. If a first-year student under age 21 breaks the rules more than once, the university wellness center will call their parents.

Olin immediately brought it up with her daughter.

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"It’s kind of nice sometimes to have the conversation when nothing has yet happened. This is a perfect opportunity, I think, to just talk to our kids about it," Olin, who lives in Connecticut, said.

In addition to calling after a second violation, the wellness center will also notify parents if a student under 21 has violated the policy for a first time in addition to something else — they need medical attention, they’ve done damage to school property, they’ve driven under the influence, for example.

"I like the tone of it. It does not feel punitive to me," Olin said.

The general policy, used by about 100 schools across the country, takes advantage of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which allows institutions to report such issues to parents of students who are under drinking age or listed as a dependent on their federal income tax return.

Jimmy Shaw, an incoming Michigan freshman, said that calling a freshman’s parents feels a bit over-the-top, but it doesn’t worry him.

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“I don’t necessarily agree with it, only because if everyone going to college is 18, they’re technically adults themselves,” Shaw said. “But I don’t think it will necessarily hurt anyone, and I think a lot of parents that have college-aged kids kind of know what goes on in college.”

Many other schools have had the policy in place for years. George Washington University’s policy states that parents of kids who are underage and are in violation are notified via letter. And in 2010, Virginia Tech announced that parents could get a call even after a student’s first offense.

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Getting a note that your drunk kid has been transported to the hospital is one way to open the lines of communication. But experts prefer that parents intervene long before the college has to reach out.

“If a parent said to me, ‘Name the one thing I have to do,’ it’s don’t let your kids drink alcohol until they’re 21,” said Rob Turrisi, professor with a joint appointment in the dept of biobehavioral health and the Prevention Research Center at Penn State University. He studies the effects of parental involvement on drinking, and he supplies the guidelines for Mothers Against Drunk Driving, among others.

"We’re not sure if it has a real impact long-term, but the intention is good; it’s to keep students safe."

His position, based on years of research, could not be clearer: “When kids are exposed to alcohol at an early age, they’re not protected. They’re worse.”

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For parents, getting involved is key — and it should start early and last long after you drop your young adult at the dorms. In 2013, two studies — one by Turrisi and the other by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin — found that parental involvement before and during college impacted teens’ drinking.

There may be biological reasons why young college students simply can’t be trusted to make the right choices. Because teens’ emotional centers are still developing, they are highly reward-sensitive, Turrisi said. “In an environment where there’s lot of rewards for (drinking), you need to be able to step out of it. That doesn’t mean we want robot kids that never do anything.”

Armed with the right evidence-based knowledge, “parents can be effective,” said Turrisi.

“You don’t lose influence over your child just because they’ve left home and gone to college,” said Dr. Aaron White, senior scientific advisor to the National Institute of Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA). “I think what these policies are aimed at is to continue to keep parents in the loop, so that the parents can continue to have influence over the trajectory of their students’ development. We’re not sure if it has a real impact long-term, but the intention is good; it’s to keep students safe.”

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Besides, reasons White, college is an investment, and Mom and Dad deserve to know they’re getting a return, especially if your drinking is causing you to fail (according to the NIAAA, every year about 25 percent of college students report that drinking is affecting their academics).

Even more sobering statistics suggest there’s a lot at stake. Each year an estimated 97,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are victims of alcohol-related sexual assault or date rape.

And the NIAAA reports that over 1,800 college students a year die from alcohol-related unintentional injuries.

Put differently, “Seventy-five kids that are college students now are not going to be with us on Monday in the U.S.,” said Turrisi last Friday.

“The parents that get the call that their kids are drinking are going to be fortunate by comparison to the parents who get that other call. This is why I really encourage parents to communicate beforehand.”