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Alcohol, Health, and Discipline

Guest Column Stephen R. L. Millman

As a member of the Institute Committee on Discipline (COD) and a GRT at Next House, I feel the need to respond to the editorial in the September 15th issue of The Tech.

While I agree largely with the content of the editorial “A Beginning, Not an End,” there is a point which misses the mark broadly. Near the conclusion, the editorial board of The Tech asserts that “MIT needs to take measures to assure students that they will not be in trouble when seeking medical help for other students.” In fact, no one has ever been in trouble at MIT for seeking medical attention required by another student. What The Tech is suggesting, of course, is that there is a real possibility that a student who has broken the law by providing alcohol to a minor and getting him or her so drunk that he or she requires medical attention will be reluctant to call for help for fear of Institute reprisal.

I believe that the reason that students feel reluctant to make the call is that they do not understand what will happen to them if they call. In a nutshell, if you have not broken a law or Institute policy and call for help, you won’t be in any trouble. If you call for help and have broken a law or Institute policy and have not done so before, you will receive a very small penalty that doesn’t affect your academic record in any way. If you do not call for help and you have broken a law or Institute policy you will be caught and you will receive a penalty that could include suspension or expulsion.

Clearly, the most important thing, once an MIT student has made a mistake and someone’s health is in danger, is that proper medical assistance is acquired. In almost all cases this means calling the campus police (CP) who have the fastest response time and are all trained emergency medical technicians (EMTs). When the CPs arrive, the first thing that they do is assess the condition of the person in need and tend to him or her and then, if a law has been broken, they begin to investigate to find those responsible.

Except in the most severe cases, like if a student dies or is permanently disabled, the worst punishment typically handed out to a first time offending student responsible for serving an underage drinker, or drinking underage, or failing to register a party where alcohol is being served is an alcohol citation. The alcohol citation consists of three parts: talking to a dean, a $25 fine, and going through an alcohol training exercise on CD-ROM. That’s it. Nothing on your academic record. Your instructors can’t see it. In fact, the only circumstance that will bring it to light is a future disciplinary action. It’s not fun, but it’s also not a tragedy.

Where people get into serious trouble is when they do not stop after the first mistake -- having broken the law or Institute policy. The students who come before the full COD are people who have failed to make the call to campus police, lied about the whereabouts of a drunken student, drove drunk to get someone to MIT Medical themselves and avoid the CPs, dropped unconscious people at MIT Medical and then disappear without providing information about what happened to the student, and other stupid, reckless, and dangerous things. In almost all cases the CPs catch these people and the penalties they can receive can be enormous. In some previous cases students have been fined much more heavily, placed on formal probation (which appears on the transcript for a period of time), suspended, or expelled.

Students at MIT must understand that the penalty they will face increases dramatically with each bad decision they make. Once you have made the first one, stop and do the right thing. Call for medical attention and tell the truth. In the two years I have served on the COD and various review panels, we have never issued a hard penalty to any student who has been forthright to us and to the CPs from the very beginning.

The Tech makes an important point about the need to do something which ensures that students in need get the medical attention they require. The answer, however, is not to make breaking the law a consequence-free action. What needs to be done is to have students be educated about what will happen when they make the call and, just as importantly, the potentially dire consequences to both themselves and the student in need if they do not.

Steven R. L. Millman is a graduate student in the Department of Political Science.