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Alcohol and personal responsibility

Alex Coccia | Wednesday, September 28, 2011

According to the Sept. 15 issue of The Scholastic, there were two reported sexual assaults on campus in 2009. That is two assaults too many. In a press release regarding changes to the University’s sexual assault policy, Vice President for Student Affairs Fr. Tom Doyle said, “Sexual misconduct can have no place at Notre Dame, and we are committed to continuing to protect the safety and human dignity of every student.” To ensure that sexual assault really doesn’t have a place at Notre Dame, the University and the student body need to make an enormous change in attitude regarding alcohol. The changes to Notre Dame’s sexual assault policy, although excellent, address the symptoms and not the causes of sexual assault. According to Officer Keri Kei Shibata of NDSP, “nearly all reported sexual assaults on campus involve alcohol. The percentage is near 100 percent when the assault is committed by someone who is known to the victim (a friend, acquaintance, friend of a friend, classmate, person met at a party or bar, etc.). The vast majority of sexual assaults reported on our campus (just like all other campuses) are perpetrated by acquaintances or people known to the victim.”

Notre Dame acknowledges that, “the vast majority of all student arrests, campus disciplinary problems, academic difficulties and campus vandalism are alcohol-related. By controlling the amount of alcohol consumed at any one time, the number of such incidents can be greatly reduced. In addition, individuals in the immediate community are likely to experience difficulties as a result of the drinking behaviors of others.” And yet, despite Notre Dame’s policy prohibiting intoxication of anyone on campus and committing to enforce Indiana State Law regarding underage drinking and possession of alcohol, alcohol abuse and underage drinking run rampant. Associated with this alcohol abuse is sexual assault.

There are three avenues of authority that can begin to enforce the alcohol policy more strongly: NDSP, rectors, ARs and RAs, and the student body.

There is a concern, however, that any aggressive measures on the part of NDSP or hall staff (for instance, NDSP could begin entering dorm rooms to break up parties that are suspected of hosting underage drinking – which has been described in conversation as a “police state”) would simply push more parties off-campus, adding the driving component to the situation and putting parties outside of Notre Dame jurisdiction. Basically, off-campus parties would not be under the Notre Dame umbrella (and yet, when students are arrested off campus for valid legal violations, the students want Notre Dame to help them and “to improve … [the] strained relationship between students and local law enforcement” (Scholastic)). Therefore, it seems that the current Notre Dame policy is containment, rather than prevention, when it comes to alcohol abuse — better to have students drink underage and abuse it on campus than have them wander home from off campus completely intoxicated.

There is some merit to this argument. Adding the driving component to off-campus parties puts more people at risk of serious injury or death because of one college student’s actions. Similarly, intoxication on campus that requires medical attention removes community resources from families in South Bend who may need treatment for something completely unpreventable, unlike college kids choosing to drink.

What is inconsistent with this containment argument is Notre Dame’s own policy. How can the University claim to enforce Indiana State Law, prevent and punish underage drinking and alcohol abuse, when the University is more focused on making sure students keep the poor behavior on campus? The University has taken non-aggressive steps to promote a safe drinking culture by revamping the College HAS Issues seminar for freshmen. But alcohol education should not be limited to the first weekend of freshman year. Alcohol education has to continue through a student’s four years at Notre Dame and multiple times each year. Whatever talks or educational initiatives are added should be mandatory.

(Continued from The Observer.)

I have been told stories of some RAs taking part in parties where alcohol is served to minors, but I have also heard stories of RAs monitoring – almost in bouncer style – people who enter and leave parties in their sections. If Notre Dame wants to continue its policy of containment but begin to lean on the side of enforcement, then making enforcement by RAs of no underage drinking the norm would be a good start. Rectors, too, can make the choice to leave the first floor and circulate around the dorm during the weekends. Notre Dame can certainly do more to make the drinking environment safer, to live up to its own alcohol policy, and to prevent the precursor to most of the sexual assaults on campus, but so far Notre Dame has not taken that necessary step.

So, the challenge must be left to the student body. Whatever moral or ethical high ground we show as a student body when it comes to doing good around the world, we fail to show in our own home, with our own friends. When a girl is being harassed at a party or a guy is drinking himself to death, where is the student telling the guy to leave the girl alone or telling the drinking guy to stop? If the friends are themselves intoxicated, then how can they help someone who is in trouble? Friends of drinkers need to take more personal responsibility.

It saddened me deeply to hear a girl in front of me at the football game against Michigan State telling her friend about how her little sister had visited for the weekend, and so she took her to a party. At the party, the little sister did not want to drink, but the older sister kept pressuring her to take shots until she finally caved and did. Where were the bystanders who could have stepped in to help the little sister? The older sister completely disregarded her personal responsibility, and so did the people around her. Despite the argument that drinking is a personal choice, drinking always affects more people than just the drinker. But students have the right not to have to babysit drunk friends.

Students have the right not to be insulted by someone who is intoxicated. Students have the right not to have their property damaged by drunk antics. Students have the right to be able to sleep without being interrupted by someone who is intoxicated. Students have the right not to experience unwanted sexual advances from someone who is intoxicated. Students have the right never to be physically assaulted by someone who is intoxicated. And students absolutely have the right to never be a victim of sexual assault or acquaintance rape. The ability to become intoxicated on campus inhibits the promise that sexual misconduct “can have no place at Notre Dame” and that Notre Dame is “committed to continuing to protect the safety and human dignity of every student.”

Personal responsibility is a revolutionary concept. When it comes to taking personal responsibility with regards to alcohol, it is something that goes vehemently against the tide. Personal responsibility means that those of legal age prohibit serving minors at their parties, that students choose to drink socially rather than with the goal of intoxication, and that students look out for one another, especially in environments conducive to unwanted sexual contact.

People will say that drinking is a necessary part of the college experience, that drinking is a personal choice and it does not affect anyone else, or that people who advocate taking personal responsibility just do not know how to have fun. And every time people say these things, they are wrong. It is absurd that one of the driving factors of whether or not someone is sexually assaulted or raped is something that is so easy to eliminate, and yet something for which students take very little personal responsibility to eliminate. Personal responsibility is the key for Notre Dame to live up to its idealized self-image of an institution and student body built on love for others and committed to being our brothers’ and sisters’ keepers.

Alex Coccia is a sophomore. He can be contacted at acoccia@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.