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Editorial

Colleges should grant amnesty if students seek alcohol help

Boston University freshman Anthony Barksdale II’s death in the early hours of March 2 appears to be a tragedy too often repeated: another young person’s life cut short after a night of underage drinking. Now, after BU suspended a fraternity in the wake of the death — the third fraternity or sorority to be banned for alleged underage or coerced drinking since last spring — it needs to think about more creative ways to educate students on the dangers of drinking while showing them that the school is there to help.

An obvious next step would be for BU to follow the lead of other local campuses, including Harvard, MIT, Northeastern, and Emerson, and institute a medical amnesty policy. Under such a Good Samaritan provision, if one student seeks help for another out of concern about alcohol toxicity or overdose, there are no disciplinary repercussions for either student for violating campus rules on alcohol or drug use.

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BU has cracked down on underage drinking in recent years, recording an impressive drop in alcohol violations this fall. It also moderated its previous “zero tolerance” stance in 2009, saying students ordinarily won’t be disciplined for alcohol violations if they seek out medical assistance as long as they complete education and counseling programs. To fully gain students’ trust, however, this change didn’t go far enough, particularly amid heavy enforcement and penalties that range from a mark on one’s disciplinary record to thousands of dollars in fines, loss of housing, and suspension.

At Tufts, which also doesn’t have medical amnesty, one student wrote in a recent campus survey about staying up all night to watch over an unconscious friend rather than call 911 because the other girl risked probation. Another student admitted to putting concerns about disciplinary action, and thus a lost friendship, ahead of getting stitches for a drunken classmate.

Other campuses in Boston and elsewhere have worked to remove such fears, formalizing medical amnesty and making outreach a priority. Schools consistently find that medical amnesty leads to more calls to 911 in alcohol-related emergencies.

Nearly all colleges now mandate alcohol education for all incoming students, but some take it further, requiring an online course, AlcoholEdu, as part of class registration. Some colleges, including Dartmouth and Haverford, hired students to attend parties sober in order to be able to intervene if drunken classmates lose control. Along with their punitive efforts, BU and other local universities should look for innovative ways to improve their alcohol education programs.

In the past, BU has resisted formal medical amnesty, insisting students must be held accountable for their actions. When the stakes are as high as they proved for Anthony Barksdale, though, health and safety must be put first.

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