UF's alcohol policy taking toll on frats?


The Sigma Phi Epsilon house on the University of Florida campus Jan. 7.

Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun
Published: Saturday, May 11, 2013 at 9:46 p.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, May 11, 2013 at 9:46 p.m.

On Sept. 12, 2011, University of Florida police responded to two calls about intoxicated students.

One student, at the Broward Hall dormitory on the UF campus, couldn't remember her last name or where she was. She just gave her birth date over and over. She was later taken to Shands at the University of Florida.

The other, at Springs Complex, another UF housing unit, was coherent when police arrived but vomited several times.

The students told UPD they had been drinking at the same fraternity party. Both were 18 years old, under Florida's legal drinking age of 21.

The young women, however, did not face any student code of conduct violations or other academic sanctions.

That's because the incidents, just two of many cases of underage drinking that the Gainesville Police Department and UPD handle each year, came shortly after UF adopted a Medical Amnesty Policy.

Enacted in April 2011 just weeks after a UF student died off campus from alcohol poisoning, the policy guarantees protection from discipline for intoxicated underage students and those who get them help.

So far, officials say and UF records indicate, the policy is working.

In the 2010-11 academic year, there were 23 hospital transports for alcohol on campus. The following year, with the policy in place, the number rose to 50.

Maureen Miller, GatorWell Health Promotion Services director, said the spike might look bad but it actually means students are aware of and using the policy.

“They're not going to be penalized for doing the right thing and making that call,” she said.

“The number one concern for us is that there's not somebody out there who's drinking so much that they're going to die,” added Jen Day Shaw, associate vice president for student affairs and dean of students.

The policy, however, also has led to a consequence that its advocates may not have intended: a striking increase in the number of fraternities and sororities either on probation or suspended by the university for varying offenses, usually related to alcohol use.

In the 2010-11 academic year, two houses on campus were either suspended or placed on probation. The following year, after the policy took effect, the number leapt to 18.

This year, 16 of the 64 chapters at UF have been either suspended or put on probation at some point, according to university numbers.

The amnesty extends only to the drinking students, not those providing the alcohol. Thus, when underage students in crisis tell authorities they had been drinking at a UF fraternity house, the fraternity faces punishment.

Chris Loschiavo, assistant dean of students and director of Student Conduct and Conflict Resolution, said the numbers are the highest he has seen in his six years at UF.

“I think the issue is more organizations are getting caught, for whatever reason. And, just as before, they're being held accountable,” he said.

Loschiavo cited various reasons why the disciplines are high, such as a lower tolerance for hazing and bullying, but he said the Medical Amnesty Policy is having an impact.

Other UF officials, however, downplayed the hike in the number of Greek organizations in trouble.

“It doesn't feel like this year all of a sudden we've got a huge problem on our hands,” said Jack Causseaux, associate director for Sorority and Fraternity Affairs at UF.

He later amended that he was comparing the current year only to the year before.

Causseaux said he doesn't know if there is a correlation, but students in Greek organizations are educated on the policy.

Comments from those most impacted — students, notably those belonging to sororities and fraternities — are difficult to come by.

Every organization member who was asked to comment by The Sun referred questions to Causseaux or to officers of the Greek councils.

Not one leader of a fraternity, sorority or any of the councils on the UF campus responded to repeated phone calls and emails from The Sun.

***

On March 13, 2011, Molly Ammon, a 19-year-old UF student from Tampa, was found dead in a Madeira Beach condominium on spring break. An autopsy showed she had a blood-alcohol concentration of more than 0.40 — five times the legal limit for impairment in Florida.

The Pinellas County Sheriff's Office reported that Ammon's friends said she had been drinking beer, liquor and mixed drinks the night before her death. Friends put her to bed because she was having problems walking, according to the report. She was found dead the next morning.

It was the first alcohol-related death of a UF student since a 15-month period in 2004-05 during which five students died in such incidents. UF President Bernie Machen formed the Community Alcohol Coalition — a task force of university, police and city officials — and in April 2011, officials enacted the Medical Amnesty Policy.

Angie Ammon, Molly's mother, said at the time that the amnesty policy was “absolutely brilliant” even if it wouldn't help her daughter, who appeared fine to friends before going to sleep.

But Ammon said it would have helped in a situation involving one of her daughter's friends, who became ill after drinking at a UF fraternity party and who was reluctant to be taken to a hospital.

UF records show that from spring 2006 to 2011, before the policy was adopted, more than 2,500 students were referred for disciplinary action for alcohol incidents. During that same period, more than 160 UF students were taken to a hospital for alcohol-related problems.

When they developed the policy, administrators — including GatorWell's Miller — determined that student safety was worth risking the possibility that amnesty could be seen as encouraging underage drinking.

“Our first and foremost goal is student safety and obtaining the medical assistance they require,” said Maj. Brad Barber, public information officer for UPD.

UPD sends all underage drinking-related reports to Student Conduct Resolutions administrators in the Dean of Students Office. The administrators then determine whether the Medical Amnesty Policy applies to the situation. If so, the student is referred to a GatorWell counselor.

The student and counselor get together for what is usually a one-time educational meeting, Miller said. Not following this requirement and repeated alcohol offenses might change the situation, she said.

Generally, though, nothing goes on a permanent record.

***

College students join sororities and fraternities for a variety of reasons — leadership opportunities, volunteering and fundraising, an emphasis on good grades and well-roundedness.

But themed parties, elaborate football tailgates and rented-out bars also are standard social fare and hold an allure for many college students.

UPD records show that students in trouble typically tell police where they've been — a party at a fraternity house, a function at a bar set up by a fraternity.

“We're getting more reports of, ‘Yeah, I was drinking at XYZ fraternity,' ” Loschiavo said.

Oversight at these parties can be lax.

Sometimes “21+” wristbands find their ways into the hands of minors, IDs are checked loosely or not at all. Other times the party is unregistered with the university and fraternity leaders deny the party even happened.

The only incentive the policy gives the fraternities is that if its representative calls for help, the policy states that “this act of responsibility might mitigate potential Student Conduct Code consequences.”

Several police reports show fraternity leaders cooperating with police. In one instance, UPD recommended no consequences for a fraternity that went “above and beyond the call of duty” to maintain a safe environment. That fraternity, Zeta Beta Tau, is currently in good standing.

At UF, probations and suspensions of Greek houses generally involve educational requirements to return to good standing. Loschiavo said sanctions vary based on circumstances and on a case-by-case basis.

Organizations placed on probation can remain active at UF but often face privilege restrictions. These restrictions and the duration of probation also vary.

When an organization is suspended, it loses its recognition on campus. The suspension can last for a fixed or indefinite time.

Chapters also have to answer to their national headquarters, which can impose their own sanctions.

One fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, was closed by its national leaders in January amid accusations of involvement in theft, hazing and underage drinking, according to a series of letters sent to the fraternity by the dean of students office during the fall.

The fraternity, which had been at UF since 1925, was facing conduct sanctions from UF at the time, and administrators still placed the chapter on suspension for two years.

All of this comes at a time when fraternity behavior around the country is under scrutiny following the hazing death in November 2011 of a band drum major at Florida A&M University.

And it also coincides with an effort by Machen, aided by Gov. Rick Scott, to propel UF into the ranks of the top 10 public universities in the United States.

University spokeswoman Janine Sikes said she is not concerned with how the increase in fraternities in trouble could impact UF's public image.

“The safety of the students is much more important,” she said. Sikes added that the problem is not unique to Gainesville.

Indeed, at the University of Central Florida, all new initiation activities in its Greek system were suspended as officials investigated issues related to alcohol and hazing. The suspension was lifted after presentations on underage drinking, hazing, alcohol education and accountability, according to KnightNews.com.

Day Shaw said UF students in the Greek system have been more cooperative with the university and correct errors when they are called in for conduct issues.

“We definitely have seen a change, even just since I've been here,” Day Shaw said of the last few years.

UF students are smart, she said, and some of them are making an effort to shape up.

Miller said administrators don't have any current plans to change or amend UF's Medical Amnesty Policy, but that it's always a possibility for the future.

“I feel like we have a really strong policy,” she said. “Is it perfect? No, probably not. But I think what we have is very solid, very strong.”

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