Campus discusses alcohol policy

Truman State University students, administrators and staff spent the fall semester discussing possible changes to the existing dry campus policy, concern for student safety regarding alcohol and the consequences of violating both state law and University policy.

There are many moving parts to account for when considering the campus and its relationship with alcohol policies, which can make it hard to understand the situation as it currently stands.

Last semester the student organization Young Americans for Liberty led an effort to change the University’s status as a dry campus, while Student Government presented a formal request that the administration consider revising its alcohol policies.

In response, a committee of students and administrators was formed to work with administrators to address potential changes to the policy.

Janna Stoskopf, vice president for student affairs, said conversations between administrators began last year to discuss potentially revising Truman’s alcohol policy.

A group of administrators were brainstorming possible solutions to enrollment projections that Truman would experience decreases in residence hall occupancy, Stoskopf said. This led them to ask what Truman could do to encourage students to consider living in the residence halls longer.

In April 2019, Student Government heard about these conversations and passed a resolution formally requesting that the administration consider revising the alcohol policy. The resolution expressed support for allowing those who are of legal age to possess and consume alcohol on campus, Stoskopf said.

At the start of the fall semester, Stoskopf spoke to students and staff before forming a committee specifically dedicated to reconsidering Truman’s alcohol policy. The committee appointed three members from Student Government, three students from the Residence Hall Association and one student from Young Americans for Liberty, which is one of the more vocal campus organizations looking to revise the policy.

Stoskopf said a major goal of the committee is to understand how different students perceive the issue of alcohol on Truman’s campus.

The committee met once a week during the second half of the fall semester to discuss the current policy and the purposes it serves, as well as what students observe and hear about in regard to alcohol consumption at Truman.

Stoskopf said she outlined many options that the committee could explore, from leaving the policy as it is to modifying it in some ways to permit some flexibility regarding alcohol. The committee is close to submitting a recommendation to the president, Stoskopf said.

Student Government President Deanna Schmidt said there is a drawback for her in calling Truman a dry campus. She said exceptions have been made for alcohol to be consumed on campus, such as at events like football games, Homecoming and inside the Student Union Building for certain outside community member events.

It is also known to the administration and Residence Life that there are plenty of students who try to get around the policy, Schmidt said.

Because there are so many factors against campus being alcohol free, Schmidt said for Truman to be advertising itself as a dry campus when it is not can feel like false advertising.

Student Government’s stance in the dry campus debate is supporting students who are 21 and over to have alcohol in the dorms or come back to the dorms after drinking since it is their legal right, according to Schmidt.

In 2018, the idea of advocating for students of legal age was suggested by Student Government Senator Adam Paris.

Schmidt said a resolution was written after talking to students who felt strongly about changing to a wet campus.

Another reason why Student Government supports the addition of a wet campus is that they feel like a dry campus can have enrollment and retention issues, Schmidt said.

Since there has been a decline in enrollment numbers at Truman, Schmidt said there has also been a decline in students choosing to live in the dorms, as shown by Dobson Hall being closed because of a small student population.

Schmidt said Student Government thinks advocating for a change in dry campus policy could help Truman’s on-campus living situation and help retain students who are of age. Allowing alcohol for certain students, Schmidt said, might also benefit how students feel about discussing alcohol with ResLife.

“It could also encourage students to feel more open to talking about alcohol because it’s become a bit of a taboo topic,” Schmidt said. “Nobody wants to talk about the rules in fear of getting in trouble, so we just wanted to open up the discussion.”

Additionally, Schmidt said first and second year students might not be of age to legally drink, so allowing a change in policy for safe drinking might be an incentive for those students to stay on campus if they have considered leaving Truman.

Schmidt said she thinks becoming a wet campus will only help Truman. There are very few students or families who come to Truman specifically because it’s a dry campus, she said. 

Even tour guides are careful to tell potential students that it’s easy to find parties and opportunities to drink around or off campus since it’s not a secret that college age students consume alcohol, Schmidt said.

Concerned parents can talk to admissions or tour guides about alcohol, but Schmidt said most families are aware that college students at a public university are going to drink sometimes.

Schmidt said the committee working with the wet campus bill is still figuring out what changes should be made to campus.

One option that Schmidt said has been discussed is the addition of a wet dorm for students who are 21 and over and a dry dorm for underage students or those who do not want to drink.

Details like roommate selection, legal drinking age students distributing alcohol to underage students, student adviser training, going from a dry dorm to a wet dorm and how much the University can be liable for are issues to be talked about and decided by ResLife.

The Department of Public Safety also plays a role in alcohol on campus when it comes to minors in possession.

MIPs are given by law enforcement when minors are intoxicated or in possession of alcohol. Chad Whittom, assistant director of the Department of Public Safety, said MIPs fluctuate from year to year.

He said MIPs aren’t a big problem on campus, but they are something that DPS staff deals with on a regular basis.

As far as preventing an MIP goes, DPS offers alcohol education programs, group presentations and other programs like self defense that incorporate alcohol-related scenarios.

“I always hear that people are scared of getting in trouble, but the other thing you have to take into consideration is safety,” Whittom said. “If a person consumes alcohol to a certain level, they become a danger to themselves. They could run into the possibility of alcohol poisoning and other hazardous situations. So even though we don’t want someone to get in trouble, we have to consider what is more important, their safety or the fact that they might get in trouble.”

According to the Annual Security and Fire Report that schools use to provide information about campus safety and procedures, Truman falls below comparable schools’ data regarding liquor laws. Truman seems to issue more arrests and less conduct violations than other schools when it comes to alcohol.

In 2017, Truman had 26 liquor law arrests, which are arrests that go through the court system. Northwest Missouri State University and Southeast Missouri State University each had one.

In liquor law violations referred for disciplinary action, which are alcohol violations that only go through the schools’ student code of conduct, Truman had significantly lower data. In 2017, Truman’s liquor law violations totaled 18, while Northwest had 205 and Southeast had 88.

However, there are consequences of alcohol violations of Truman’s policy. Stoskopf said the University cannot change the state laws concerning possession and consumption of alcohol, but Truman can adjust how it resolves potential violations of University policies.

“Students think they understand what the consequences are for a violation of University policies, but when I ask them what they anticipate will happen, based on certain things, they have a much more stringent sanctioning process in their mind than what our process actually has,” Stoskopf said.

Typically, for a student’s first conduct violation for alcohol — regardless of age — they have a hearing with the conduct board. The student acknowledges the alleged conduct and accepts responsibility for it, and then there is a conversation about a deferred resolution program, Stoskopf said.

The program — which is only available after a student’s first violation — has students attend a three-hour class offered on multiple Saturdays per year with a $50 class material fee and complete a certain number of service hours.

Once the class and service hours are completed, the alcohol violation is removed from their record.

Stoskopf said the aim of this program is to ensure that by the end, students have more knowledge that will affect their decision-making process so the student is less likely to find themselves in violation of the policy again.

After the first violation, students are likely to face a designated probation period with a solid end date where they must demonstrate that they can comply with University policies. This probation period might also feature an additional requirement such as service hours, an essay assignment or an online alcohol program.

Through the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act the conduct board also has the ability to contact an underage student’s parent or guardian to inform them of an alcohol violation, though they make the decision to inform on a case-by-case basis.

Jamie Van Boxel, director of ResLife, said there is not a significant number of students or a specific dorm that has been documented for intoxication.

Although he is not on the wet campus committee, Van Boxel said the decision to change Truman’s alcohol policy depends on whether Truman wants to align itself with state law or be more restrictive with drinking like other universities.

Van Boxel said Truman’s current alcohol and alcohol paraphernalia policy is not outdated because other universities in Missouri follow a dry campus policy, like the University of Missouri, Saint Louis University and the University of Missouri-Kansas City, in addition to out-of-state universities.

Most of age students who choose to drink generally do not put themselves in danger, Van Boxel said, so he thinks they could respect drinking safely in the dorms if the bill is passed.

“Students follow the rules and the laws, so I think if the policy would change, I think there’s an opportunity for 21 year olds and older to demonstrate that they can drink responsibility and do so on campus,” Van Boxel said. “I have no concerns if the committee makes a recommendation to the president to change our current policy of being a dry campus.”

Students do choose to drink regardless of age or living on or off campus, which can create consequences for their personal and academic success, Van Boxel said.

One change ResLife might look into is potentially adding more discussion of alcohol in their hall staff curriculum so students can feel more engaged by their student advisers and hall directors on the topic, he said.

As far as student safety with alcohol, Van Boxel said safety is a very individualized responsibility.

Students have to make decisions about whether they can be accountable to Truman’s dry campus policy and, no matter if the policy changes or not, Van Boxel said that will still be true.

If a student decides to drink and lives on campus, Van Boxel said the safest thing they can do is return to their dorm.

Another benefit of a student coming back to their residence hall, Van Boxel said, is that if any incident of excessive alcohol consumption occurs and medical attention is needed then hall staff are already trained to help that student.

Fear of getting in trouble and going through the conduct committee process can sometimes scare students from coming back to the dorms, Van Boxel said.

“Our students are adults and they’re allowed to make choices and they’re accountable to those choices,” Van Boxel said. “Sometimes a choice has a consequence. At Truman that consequence is having an educational conversation with a conduct officer. That’s not the same as getting in trouble. It’s meant to be a learning experience, just like going to class and taking a test and getting a B instead of an A. It’s not what you wanted but you learn from that and the next time you do better.”

As intermediary between students and administration, Stoskopf had a different view of the dynamics involved in potentially revising the alcohol policy.

Stoskopf said her first obligation is to ensure the personal well-being and academic success of students, but she also has an obligation to make sure that the University and students are in compliance with Missouri laws.

 “If we were to decide to recommend a change, I want to make sure that it is understood that it is not a University endorsement of unlawful possession or consumption by anyone,” Stoskopf said. “That’s a very clear message that needs to be understood.”

There are several different aspects of the policy to account for, one of which is students being concerned about coming back to the residence halls after drinking off campus, Stoskopf said.

She said she would rather have a conversation about alcohol use than have someone be put in a vulnerable position and potentially have something very traumatic happen because they felt like they could not come back to the dorms.

 “We have a lot of mindsets to change,” Stoskopf said. “Whether anything changes with the policy or not —  it could remain exactly as it is — we still need to work on educating students about high risk and low risk behaviors and outcomes for policy violations. We need to change the narrative, so people understand that we are not hiding in the bushes waiting for someone to trip and then accuse them of being under the influence of alcohol.”