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MIT Reviews Parental Notification Policies

By Naveen Sunkavally

In the midst of a national shift among colleges and universities towards informing parents about student drinking violations, MIT is reviewing its parent notification procedures.

The shift began last October when Congress, in reaction to several high-profile drinking deaths across the nation, passed a bill allowing schools to report student drinking violations and other criminal acts to parents. The bill provides an exception to the 1974 Buckley Amendment, a far-ranging statute which had mandated that schools act in loco parentis, or “in place of parents,” in disciplinary matters and forbade the release of student records.

More recently, the Massachusetts Board of Higher Education, working within the framework set by the October bill, voted this past May to require all public schools and universities report to parents all student drinking violations beginning next fall. While the move applies to state and community colleges such as Bridgewater or Framingham State, it does not apply to the UMass colleges or private institutions such as MIT.

MIT sends out letters to parents

At MIT, no policy changes have been made yet, but exploratory steps are being taken. “We are very much in the midst of it,” Dean for Student Life Margaret Bates said. Letters were recently sent in order to determine what types of general information parents would want to know about students. Bates said that parent input is one thing that is especially lacking in the current review. The input from the letters will be collected throughout the summer.

“No policy changes will be made over the summer,” Rosalind H. Williams, dean for undergraduate education, said. Williams said that the deans are discussing parent notification procedures amongst themselves, and will, if necessary, make a recommendation to the Committee on Student Affairs. “If we make any change, it will be discussed with students and parents,” Williams said.

Currently MIT treats parent notification for student drinking violations on a case-by-case basis, notifying parents when dangerous drinking is involved (the Buckley Amendment had still allowed schools to notify parents when a student’s safety was at stake). Bates said that historically MIT has tried to emphasize personal responsibility and has tried to act directly with students rather than through parents.

“Our primary concern is dangerous drinking,” Bates said. The question now, given the new freedom by the recent legislation, is whether “[parent notification] would be helpful in less dangerous drinking.”

Where exactly the line between dangerous and less-dangerous drinking is one of the issues that must be resolved. What sort of offenses should merit parent notification? “We’re trying to address this with basic common sense. There may be serious situations that are not necessarily violations, and violations that are not necessarily serious situations,” Williams said.

Another issue is whether having a hard-and-fast rule such as the one mandated by the Board will drive drinking more underground and cause students not to report fellow students even in dangerous situations.

Board surveys campuses to decide

Jack Warner, vice-chancellor for the Board of Higher Education, said that the primary reason for requiring schools to inform parents was evidence gathered from surveying different campus policies.

He pointed out the success of parent notification at the University of Delaware.“They’ve had excellent success rates when students are caught underage drinking or exhibiting drunken behavior,” Warner said.

The Board’s decision makes no distinction between responsible and irresponsible underage drinking. It applies to all violations. “We have to remember that’s the law of the land. Parents themselves may vary in their response [to student drinking violations]. We have to apply the law uniformly,” Warner said.

“I’m a parent of college-age students myself. I certainly want to know... I can influence them better,” Warner said. He said that he knows many parents who have expressed a similar desire to know about their students drinking habits.

Warner also felt that the argument that requiring parent notification would drive drinking underground is a “cop out.,” comparing it to the idea that having regulations on on-campus would drive students off-campus. He cited studies by Henry Weschler, director of College Alcohol Studies at the Harvard School of Public Health.

UMass Lowell adopts new policy

At the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, the Chancellor has approved parent notification of student alcohol violations this past spring. The policy, to take effect in the fall, represents a cross between enforcing a hard-and-fast rule and treating violations on a case-by-case basis. While not all violations result in parent notification, and while notification does depend on the severity of the violation, parents are usually notified on the student’s second violation..

Christine McKenna, executive director of communications and marketing and liaison to Student Services at UMass Lowell, said that the fact that parent notification was a “proven deterrent on other campuses” was a primary motivation for the new policy. “Students would be more apt to comply” under the new policy, McKenna said.

She said that liability was “not at all” a motivation for the policy.

Much to be resolved still

Bates said that other campuses, their policies, and the results have to be evaluated to see what is best for MIT. For instance, in the case of the University of Delaware, Bates said it would be necessary to see how many drinking violations took place, and how many were technical versus dangerous violations.

“It’s a balancing act” between the wants of parents and the wants of students, Williams said. “If we talk to parents, they really want to know... it’s a real consideration.” But students’ trust in the university is also an issue. “I doubt we will arrive at a consensus,” Williams said.

Interim Special Assistant to the President and Chancellor for Alcohol Education and Professor Emeritus in Linguistics and Philosophy Samuel J. Keyser said the Board’s decision represents a “beauracratic solution.”

“What it (the student drinking problem) requires is a change in culture, and a certain sense of how students are setup in this,” Keyser said. Keyser said that students are receiving mixed messages in a culture that bombards children with hundreds and thousands of alcohol advertisements by the time they are 18 but makes it illegal for them to consume alcohol for the majority of their undergraduate years.

At the same time, Keyser pointed out the statistical success the prohibition of underage drinking has had in highway deaths.

“It’s really not a good situation. It’s much too complicated,” Keyser said.