ND explains lack of medical amnesty
Sarah Mervosh | Thursday, January 26, 2012
Shortly before senior Kat Rodriguez’s last home football game as a student, she was returning to a tailgate near Notre Dame Stadium when she tripped on a bicycle and gashed open her forehead.
Blood and beer spilled to the ground as Rodriguez, who was of legal drinking age, fell to the ground.
Senior Tom Burns and a friend saw Rodriguez fall and helped her to a Notre Dame Security Police (NDSP) officer. But before doing so, a thought crossed Burns’ mind — Would Rodriguez, or his friend who was intoxicated and underage, get in trouble?
“For a split second, it crossed my mind,” Burns said.
Burns ignored that thought and sought medical treatment for Rodriguez, who received stitches at a local hospital for her injury. As a result of Burns’ action, an NDSP officer nearly arrested Burns’ underage friend and Rodriguez received disciplinary action from the University for being intoxicated in public.
Dozens of schools across the country — including Notre Dame’s sister school Saint Mary’s College — have policies in place to formally protect students like Rodriguez, Burns and Burns’ friend from getting in trouble with the University when seeking out or receiving medical treatment.
Notre Dame is not one of them.
The Notre Dame philosophy
When Notre Dame was considering revising its student handbook, du Lac, in 2010, student government advocated for the inclusion of some form of medical amnesty.
After discussing both a medical amnesty policy, which protects the student needing medical assistance, and a Good Samaritan policy, which protects the student who seeks out assistance for the student in need, student government recommended the inclusion of the Good Samaritan policy.
Both Student Senate and Council of Representatives, a body comprised of students and rector representatives, passed resolutions recommending the policy.
Across the United States, approximately 90 colleges and universities have some form of a medical amnesty policy — many of which focus on alcohol use or drug use — according to Students for Sensible Drug Policy, an international group of students who say they are concerned about drug use and push for sensible drug policies.
However, the administration opted not to include such a policy in its du Lac revisions. Since the Office of Student Affairs and the Office of Residence Life, which handles student conduct and discipline, underwent major changes in organization and leadership in the past year and a half, the University’s position on a medical amnesty policy has not changed.
Brian Coughlin, the associate vice president for student development who also oversees the Office of Residence Life, said the administration decided not to adopt the medical amnesty policy because it is essentially built into the University’s disciplinary system.
When a student is charged with a violation, he or she undergoes an evaluation process in the Office of Residence Life, during which “the nature of the offense and the circumstances surrounding it … will be among the factors considered in determining a sanction,” according to du Lac’s website.
While student government wanted a more formal policy in place, Coughlin said some questioned why a medical amnesty policy would be needed at Notre Dame, “where the spirit of Christian community is so strong.”
“It is hard to fathom one Notre Dame student acting so much out of a perceived self-interest that they may not help a fellow student in need because they are more worried about potential discipline,” Coughlin said. “I recall one statement that questioned what kind of place Notre Dame would become if we have to start legislating and putting conditions on care and compassion for one another.”
Several faith-affiliated schools, such as Texas Christian University, Southern Methodist University and Fordham University, have a form of medical amnesty policy, according to their websites and student handbooks.
Across the street at Saint Mary’s College, which was founded by the same religious congregation as Notre Dame, students are protected under both medical amnesty and Good Samaritan policies.
The Saint Mary’s philosophy
Saint Mary’s College implemented its medical amnesty and Good Samaritan policies in 2008, according to Janielle Tchakerian, director of Residence Life and Community Standards for Saint Mary’s.
Since then, she said students take advantage of the policies every year.
“Our goal is to make sure a student who needs assistance gets assistance, and secondary to hold students responsible for potential violation of the code,” Tchakerian said. “Every student that I’ve talked to knows not to be afraid to call for help.”
Saint Mary’s policies cover alcohol or drug-related emergencies. They do not cover a situation in which nobody seeks help for a student, and they do not protect the student if she breaks another College rule, Tchakerian said.
Tchakerian said such policies do not conflict with the College’s Catholic teaching, but rather supplement it.
“It reinforces doing the right thing and the College supports doing the right thing,” she said. “It only reinforces the [Christian] philosophy.”
Tchakerian said these policies protect Saint Mary’s students wherever the emergency takes place — even if it occurs on Notre Dame’s campus.
“Because she is a Saint Mary’s student, she falls under our rules regardless of where that action occurs,” she said.
Shaping the conversation
Without a formal policy in place at Notre Dame, students who would have been protected under the medical amnesty policy could be referred to the Office of Residence Life, which has wiggle room to make sanctions lighter, or stronger, depending on the circumstances surrounding the rule violation.
Kathleen O’Leary, director of the Office of Residence Life, said her office strives for a “delicate balance” between prioritizing student safety and upholding expectations that students comply with University policies.
“The decision to seek out that medical assistance for self or others will definitely be a part of the conversation,” O’Leary said. “While it may not necessarily erase a student’s responsibility for violating a policy, it will shape our conversation and perhaps impact the outcomes from our office.”
O’Leary said her office does not have data on the outcomes of cases in which the student would have been protected under medical amnesty.
2011 graduate Nick Ruof, former student government senator and student body chief of staff, said he was initially disappointed when the University rejected student government’s 2010 recommendation to include medical amnesty. Ruof was left wondering if the process the University had in place was enough.
However, the next year, Ruof served as student body chief of staff and had the opportunity to look at the inner workings of the disciplinary process, which changed his mind.
“From being able to talk to the administration, get to know the administration, have those deeper conversations … I was extremely confident that they were looking out for us — as much as Res Life gets a bad rap,” he said. “I was comfortable knowing they were taking it all into consideration.”
Looking to the future
When the University finalized du Lac revisions in 2010, a major window of opportunity for policy reform closed. As a result, student body president Pat McCormick could not effectively push for the implementation of a medical amnesty policy as previous student government administrations did.
Nonetheless, McCormick said he has not let the issue completely drop off the radar.
“We continue to advocate in whatever ways are available to us to try and incorporate policy changes that will focus on student safety rather than on trying to discipline students in emergency situations,” he said.
For example, the Office of Residence Life is currently under review and McCormick said he used this as an opportunity to open up discussion about medical amnesty and express the student body’s support for the policy.
Coughlin said the current review is not of policies, such as medical amnesty, but rather a review of the disciplinary process as a whole.
However, McCormick said active communication with the administration during the review could be helpful.
“It is a valuable opportunity to reflect on ways to increase transparency and clarity on all sides of the process,” he said.
While McCormick said he trusts Notre Dame students to put a hurt or sick friend’s well-being before their own concerns, he would like to see more transparency in the disciplinary process so students can “know not only their rights, but also know their responsibilities.”
“I really deeply believe that Notre Dame students are committed to doing the right thing,” he said. “But I think Notre Dame students … have legitimate questions about the clarity in reforms and in increasing the transparency of the process.”
As for Rodriguez, her main concern after her injury and getting a University sanction, called a Res Life, was not for herself, but for Burns and his friend.
“My Res Life, I can deal with because I did something stupid and I made a mistake, but those guys didn’t have to help me at all and they went out of their way to help me,” she said. “The fact the those guys had to even think that they might get in trouble for that is really upsetting.”
Meanwhile, Burns said if a medical amnesty policy had been in place, it could have changed the way he approached the situation.
“Obviously if there was amnesty in place, there is not a second thought about helping someone out,” he said. “I’m not sure if that would have changed the officers’ behavior, maybe it would have changed our thought process.”
According to a previous Observer article, du Lac is reviewed every six to eight years, making the next opportunity for revision likely in 2016.
The Office of Residence Life holds open office hours Fridays from 11 a.m. to noon in 306 Main Building to give students an opportunity to discuss the current review of the disciplinary process.