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Amid record number of transports, a look at Stanford’s alcohol prevention initiatives

Twelve years of data reveal trends in the University’s response to undergraduate alcohol consumption

Stanford Daily File Photo

In the 2017-18 academic year, there were 51 instances in which a student drank so much they needed hospitalization — the highest number of medical alcohol transports in the last 12 years.

Six months later, Student Affairs announced the anticipated launch of new alcohol prevention initiatives, including an Alcohol Solutions Group in collaboration with Stanford Law School and an expansion of 5-SURE, Stanford’s nightly safe rides program. The “new approach,” as the email announcement termed it, follows a year that began with new definitions of ‘high-risk’ substance use behavior and new policies for how residential staff should handle instances of such behavior.

But while recorded transports reached new heights last year, the number isn’t that out of the ordinary. In 2006-07, there were 47 cases of transports; 49 occurred in 2013-14. The 2016-17 academic year saw a dip to 34. The annual average across the data is 44.

This data comes from Stanford’s annual reports of alcohol and party activity on campus, compiled since 2010 as part of Stanford’s conditional exemption from Santa Clara County’s Social Host Ordinance. The Ordinance allows the County to fine — ranging from $350 for first offenses to $1,000 for repeat offenses — those who host or facilitate a gathering in which underage drinking occurs. Stanford’s exemption means the County allows the University to address underage drinking on its own, so long as the University demonstrates it is doing so through its annual reports.

Along with a written report of Stanford’s “alcohol prevention efforts,” the annual reports contain data on the number of alcohol use-related hospitalizations and criminal violations, registered parties and students’ engagement with Students United for Risk Elimination (5-SURE).

In light of this information and of Student Affairs’ mounting alcohol prevention efforts, The Daily examined the trends in Stanford’s alcohol culture alongside its changes in policy.

Residential staff’s role in enforcement

While Stanford’s Student Alcohol Policy states that “official University functions, including events held by registered student groups, are not allowed to provide alcohol to those under 21” and bars the use of University funds for purchasing alcohol, it also states that the responsibility for the “application of” the policy lies with Student Affairs.

Because underage drinking almost always occurs within student residences, this trickles down to Residential Education (ResEd), housed within Student Affairs — leaving Residential Assistants (RAs) and Resident Fellows (RFs) as the first line of enforcement.

Stanford has long enacted a widely acknowledged though unofficial “open-door policy,” by which underage drinking is permitted in residences as long as residential staff are made aware of where and when it is happening.

While the open-door policy never appears in Stanford’s written alcohol policies, a former Resident Fellow (RF) who worked in an all-frosh dorm told The Daily that ResEd was “extremely” explicit about it.

“Verbally, in our training, time and again, they expressed that there is an open-door policy,” he said. “To the point where I described my preference to get rid of it, and they encouraged me not to do that.”

The RF raised concerns about potential liability he might encounter by permitting underage drinking to occur under his watch. He repeatedly requested documentation of legal immunity from the Residence Dean (RD) overseeing the dorm he was staffing in, but never received it. The RF cited this as a reason he ultimately chose to leave his post, and was granted anonymity so as to comply with his wishes of remaining uninvolved with campus alcohol issues.

Stanford’s student alcohol policy states that it is not the responsibility of “most Stanford officials” to enforce the law. Instead, Stanford’s Department of Public Safety (SUDPS) enforces the law when they encounter violations.

Allowing residential staff to shoulder the responsibility of alcohol prevention allows Stanford to maintain its legal obligations to the County without instituting a full-on alcohol ban — something both students and the University agree would only lead students to resort to drinking behind closed doors.

Any policy approach that seeks to curtail high-risk behavior has the potential to move the behavior elsewhere,” wrote five Student Affairs administrators — including former Vice Provost for Student Affairs Greg Boardman and former Dean of ResEd Deborah Golder — in an Oct. 2016 op-ed in The Daily. The op-ed emphasized that “only by changing cultural norms” can high-risk alcohol consumption be reduced.

Part of the attempt to change “cultural norms” means that residential staff are required to keep a close watch on the drinking behavior of students and report incidents to higher officials within ResEd.

A leaked memo from residential staff in an all-frosh dorm revealed the extent to which RAs and RFs monitor residents’ alcohol consumption. The memo listed various social gatherings, as well as incidents of pre-gaming and one incident of a student vomiting, identifying students by first name and sometimes last initial.

“From a week-to-week basis we were in charge of knowing who was doing problematic drinking and potentially intervening in places,” the former RF said. “Every week we would discuss specific students and what those specific students were up to as far as concerning behavior.”

This expectation remains in place this year, with ResEd now requiring that RAs report second occurrences of high-risk drinking to RDs. The new reporting rules also mean that third occurrences will warrant a meeting between the student and the Office of Alcohol Policy & Education (OAPE) and a fourth occurrence could result in removal from housing or a mandatory leave of absence.

In order for ResEd to interfere, however, RAs must report the incidents in the first place, which — as ResEd’s chain of command outlines — rests on “community norm setting.”

“The drinking culture belongs to the students,” OAPE director Ralph Castro told The Daily in Oct. 2017. “It isn’t really the administration’s role to regulate what happens. It’s really about students making good choices and keeping each other accountable.”

How the exemption shifts responsibility to ResEd

The power of RAs to monitor underage drinking on campus ultimately stems from Stanford’s exemption from Santa Clara’s Social Host Ordinance, which allows the County to instill fines for underage drinking. The exemption is conditionally dependent on the University having “appropriate sanctions” in place to address University employee “misbehavior”: that is, if employees knowingly allow underage drinking to occur. Such sanctions are outlined in the University’s admin guide for Controlled Substances and Behavior, and include termination of employment.

Stanford’s methods of preventing underage drinking pass the responsibility off from the University to residential staff and students. Stanford’s exemption from the Social Host Ordinance, which would ordinarily subject the University to penalty fines for permitting underage drinking, allows it to take alcohol prevention into its own hands while sheltering students and itself from California law — so long as students remain compliant with the University’s internal policies.

Stanford’s exemption from the Ordinance was justified by the University’s approach to mitigating underage drinking, which it states is “through education and other means,” according to a Jan. 26, 2010 letter to the County’s Board of Supervisors outlining its recommendations for the exemption. The Board approved the recommendations on the same day.

“Education and other means” include Stanford’s requirement that on-campus parties be registered with the University, its established Party Planning Guidelines and AlcoholEdu, an online alcohol education course incoming students are required to complete.

Thus, the letter reads, the County establishes the University as “the first line of responsibility for deterring underage drinking on campus.” Stanford’s required annual reports are part of the required regular review of the University’s efforts to that end.

The exemption was first granted for a one-year trial period in Sept. 2008 — effective starting Jan. 1, 2009 — though Stanford fought to make it permanent.

“In a way, we’re already doing precisely what the ordinance is trying to achieve and we have been for a while,” Stanford spokesperson Jean McCown told ABC News at the time.

McCown maintained her opinion through the one-year trial, telling The Daily in Jan. 2010 that the University already has an “extensive” set of alcohol policies in place. The Daily’s Editorial Board at the time echoed this sentiment, advocating for a permanent exemption.

“The University’s policies have proven themselves effective, and thus an additional ordinance on the campus would not be of any significant benefit to the campus population,” the Editorial Board wrote. “If Stanford is going to be fined every time one of its students is caught drinking under age, then financial and legal concerns may drive Stanford back into the days of being an officially dry campus. In such an environment, campus drinking would almost certainly become more secretive, extreme and, above all, dangerous.”

The County ultimately conceded to adapting the wording of the ordinance to secure the exemption’s permanence on Jan. 26, 2010.

“As far as I can say, there haven’t been any incidents that show a problem with the current exemption Stanford has from the ordinance,” Liz Kniss, president of the County’s Board of Supervisors at the time, told The Daily shortly before the Board approved the revised Ordinance.

Fluctuations since the exemption

Following their annual review in Sept. 2011 — a year and a half after the County’s adoption of the revised Ordinance — OAPE and other Student Affairs administrators wrote in an Oct. 2016 op-ed in The Daily that they “developed several educational and programmatic approaches to diminish the centrality of alcohol in student life.”

These included the introduction of alcohol-free event programming series Cardinal Nights, substance-free housing and the launch of a spring RA training course. Notably, these also included the creation of OAPE itself, a move that helped centralize Stanford’s alcohol prevention efforts.

The 2010-11 academic year was among the highest in recorded incidents of underage drinking, with 47 transports and 71 alcohol-related incidents in total. The year prior saw 135 total incidents, 73 of which were Minor in Possession of alcohol (MIP) citations.

The dip from 41 transports in the 2015-2016 school year to 34 transports in the 2016-17 year immediately followed the University’s Aug. 2016 decision to ban containers of hard alcohol that were 750 mL and larger in undergraduate student residences.

Prior to the policy change, 2,323 students voted against the ban in a campus-wide referendum — 91.46 percent of the 2,540 students who voted. Approximately 1,720 people signed a petition against the change.

In fall 2016, The Daily’s Editorial Board wrote that the new policy would not reduce drinking, but instead force it to occur behind closed doors. Then Undergraduate Senator Shanta Katipamula ’19, now Associated Students of Stanford University (ASSU) President, said at the time of the referendum that the policy had the potential to “turn RAs into police authorities rather than friend authorities.”

Campus opposition to the policy translated into uneven implementation. In a Sept. 2016 survey of 106 RAs, 21 percent of respondents reported they would enforce the policy; 45 percent said they might enforce it and 35 percent said that they do not plan to enforce it.

Despite this, 2016-17 saw a drop in MIP citations from 62 to 33 — a number that continued to decrease last year — in addition to the decrease in transports.

After the first year the ban was in place, however, Office of Alcohol Policy & Education (OAPE) director Ralph Castro was hesitant to attribute such decreases solely to the policy change, instead telling The Daily in Oct. 2017 that the policy was “one piece” of a number of larger initiatives.

In conjunction with the 750 mL rule, the 2016-17 school year saw a 49 percent increase in 5-SURE usage and a 25 percent increase in attendance at Cardinal Nights alcohol-free event programming from the 2015-16 school year. Those numbers continued to increase this year, with 5-SURE usage jumping another 42 percent.

Castro added in 2017 that Stanford would need to collect data for two additional years before determining the effectiveness of the policy change.

“Anytime you’re making a large-scale population level change, it’s going to take time in order to see change,” Castro said. “It’s an ongoing assessment.”

Though transports increased in 2017-18, when combined with MIP, Drunk in Public (DIP), Driving Under the Influence (DUI) and Public Nuisance citations, the total number of alcohol-related incidents in 2016-17 and 2017-18 is roughly equal.

Current University initiatives

Still, the University’s recent efforts may be indicative of increased attention to underage drinking. When asked if last year’s increase in transports was what led to Student Affairs’ launch of the Alcohol Solutions Group and other planned initiatives to prevent alcohol-related incidents, Student Affairs spokesperson Pat Harris said “the number of transports was one of many factors considered.”

Drell’s email also cited “an alarming number” of students found passed out alone outdoors as a factor that contributed to the new initiatives.

Among the listed efforts is the formation of the Alcohol Solutions Group, rooted in the work of a policy lab within the Law School and co-chaired by law professor and former dean Paul Brest and Stanford Medical School professor Keith Humphreys. The group, which will consist of faculty, staff and students who are currently being appointed, will meet for the first time later this month to consider steps forward in light of information linking high-risk drinking and brain damage, Humphreys said.

Drell’s email also announced the University’s efforts to become a JED Campus. The JED Foundation is a nonprofit that partners with over 200 colleges nationally to strengthen their mental health, substance abuse and suicide prevention programs through an approach adapted from the United States Air Force Suicide Prevention Program. Harris confirmed to The Daily that the University is currently working on a written agreement with JED.

As they were developed this year, such efforts will appear in the University’s 2018-19 annual report of “Progress and Initiatives,” which will be submitted to the County’s Behavioral Health Services Department this summer, department spokesperson Joy Alexiou said. In the meantime, Drell promises to share a full report on student alcohol consumption with the campus community later this quarter.  

“No matter what, the fact that students are drinking to the point of needing medical attention remains concerning,” Castro wrote in a Jan. 2019 email to The Daily.

Contact Julia Ingram at jmingram ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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