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Underage Drinking: Laws and School Policies

American colleges have a long association with irresponsible and underage drinking. This has led to concerns over the responsibility of colleges and universities in maintaining the health and safety of their students, particularly those who are underage. Underage drinking has resulted in deaths from alcohol poisoning, car accidents, homicide, and suicide. These deaths injure the communities where they occur.

Pressure from federal, state, and local authorities, the resulting damage to the reputation of schools, and exposure to lawsuits have led schools to enact policies intended to curb student underage drinking. There are three basic responses to underage drinking that a school might adopt. Schools can ignore the underage drinking among their students, they can implement policies that mirror the local laws relating to alcohol consumption, or they can implement policies that restrict and punish underage drinking to an even greater extent than the local laws.

Why Schools Can't Ignore Underage Drinking

Colleges accept some degree of responsibility for the students they enroll. Although most college students aren't children in a legal sense, the practical truth is that most college students are new to the responsibilities of an unsupervised adult life. As a result, the colleges are viewed as carrying the burden of guiding and directing their students through this difficult period.

When drinking takes place on campus, or in association with an organization with connections to the school such as a sports team or fraternal organization, the school may be held liable for certain injuries that result. In order to reduce the number of these types of incidents, schools typically establish a student code of conduct that indicates the institution's rules for student behavior.

The federal government has also created incentives for colleges to attempt to control underage drinking among their student populations. Although the federal government cannot directly regulate colleges, the Drug Free School and Communities Act Amendments of 1989 (PL 101-226) requires colleges and universities to implement a program to prevent students from abusing alcohol and illicit drugs in order to qualify for federal funds.

At a minimum, the law requires that colleges:

  • Provide students with information about the laws regulating alcohol and drug use,
  • Institute penalties for breaking local, state, federal, and campus rules,
  • Publicize the health risks associated with the abuse of alcohol, and
  • Make counseling, treatment, or rehabilitation programs available to the students.

As a result school policies regarding alcohol are frequently the same as the federal and state underage drinking laws.

Restrictions and Penalties for Underage Drinking

Some schools have created a disciplinary code or other system of school discipline intended to curb college underage drinking and problem drinking generally. Schools may ban the use of alcohol on college property or in association with college-related activities.

Frequently, an across-the-board ban is inconvenient and instead many schools require that a request be submitted to the school before holding an event that involves alcohol. This allows the school to continue to serve wine at a fundraising event, for example, without violating its own policies. Where alcohol is permitted the school may require that servers be retained who can monitor the age and degree of intoxication of attendees.

In addition, schools may prohibit sponsorship of campus event by alcohol retailers or producers. They may restrict advertising or prohibit alcohol possession or consumption in residence halls. Schools may also designate specific areas where alcohol can be consumed and restrict access to those areas to students of legal drinking age. Finally, schools may ban kegs or prohibit alcohol in places such as parking lots to eliminate "tailgating."

Other Attempts to Reduce Underage Drinking

Schools seeking to prevent college underage drinking have a number of penalties they can impose on students who violate their policies. Schools may deny financial aid, place a student on probation, or suspend or expel a student who violates school policy or breaks a law. Schools may also require enrollment in a rehabilitation program.

In addition, colleges and universities may punish student organizations responsible for events that result in underage drinking by placing them on probation or revoking the organization's status altogether. They also may levy fines, dismiss offenders from university housing, or refuse future requests for permission to serve alcohol at campus events.

Legal Assistance in Campus Proceedings

When a school regulation relating to underage drinking is broken, the accused student faces many of the same problems that would arise from a criminal conviction. For this reason, education attorneys are increasingly asked to intervene in proceedings between a school and its students.

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