Sainati: Ambiguity in Northwestern’s amnesty policy deters students from asking for help

Leo Sainati, Op-Ed Contributor

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In late August 2015, Northwestern’s Division of Student Affairs unveiled its new Amnesty through Responsible Action policy to “encourage students to take responsible action when necessary.” If students find themselves in dangerous situations involving alcohol or other drugs and seek help for themselves or other students, the University will not hold either party accountable for violating substance policies. To receive full amnesty, the student helping must also call emergency services, stay until their assistance is no longer needed and cooperate with emergency personnel. Of course, to follow state and federal law, the student must later visit the Office of Student Conduct and meet with a staff member to discuss the incident and take an alcohol and drug education course.

The current amnesty policy is a revision and expansion of the University’s former Responsible Action Protocol, which didn’t explicitly grant medical amnesty to all parties in alcohol-related situations. In April 2015, however, the Community Alcohol Coalition — a group comprised of staff, faculty and students — recommended amnesty be extended to include incidents involving other illicit drugs.

On the surface, this policy seems like an encouraging way for the administration to promote safety in a complicated environment. Indeed, Northwestern’s policy is expansive, covering both drug- and alcohol-related incidents. When given a closer look, however, the policy is vague and ambiguous on key issues and could leave many problems unresolved.

First and foremost, the amnesty policy does not clearly specify the number of students it protects. If it covers just one assisting student, others involved would be subject to disciplinary action. Not only could this ambiguity deter students from asking others for help, it could also encourage other students to leave the scene, creating an even more dangerous situation.

Another subject the policy fails to address is payment for ambulances and other medical fees associated with these incidents. Ambulance costs in Evanston start at $512 with an additional $10 per mile for city residents — an unreasonable price for many students. Out-of-state students would see even higher rates. Many could be dissuaded from calling an ambulance and might instead use alternative options such as Uber, a taxi or even walking or biking to a hospital. No student should be discouraged from seeking help due to economic concerns, and this policy fails to articulate whether students can receive financial assistance for these costs.

Policies promoting potentially life-saving actions need to be easily understood and accessible. Many first-year students, including myself, face dilemmas in deciding whether to reach out to their Resident Assistant in situations involving drugs or alcohol. RAs are often seen as disciplinary figures in residential halls, yet are also available as a resource for students — but there is little student awareness of their role in amnesty. During Wildcat Welcome, the True Northwestern Dialogue on alcohol and other drugs did not devote great attention to RAs despite their importance in many students’ lives. With the new two-year live-in requirement, more and more Northwestern students will live alongside RAs, potentially further discouraging students from seeking help from critical sources.

What this policy suffers from is a lack of clarity. A blog entry from United Educators, which provides liability insurance to educational institutions, outlined suggestions for medical amnesty policies. It emphasized the need to “describe how amnesty will apply in situations in which the institution is legally bound to report the incident to law enforcement authorities” and to “decide whether to provide amnesty to student groups and individuals.” The creators of NU’s amnesty policy might not have intended to leave these issues unaddressed, but the lack of clarity on these subjects results in dubiety on how the policy applies in certain situations.

The faults of the policy stem from a systemic culture that turns a blind eye to drinking and the consequences that follow. Drinking in college is an undeniable reality, and the hypocritical culture that demands concealment leads to dilemmas in dangerous situations. While the University is bound by Illinois law regarding the legal drinking age, a clearly articulated amnesty policy would effectively combat the culture of ignorance by encouraging students to seek help.

When announced, the amnesty policy was rightly viewed as a success in NU’s intercommunity dialogue and represents a great first step in breaking down the barriers for requesting help, but problems still prevent it from being completely successful. Further revision to address key ambiguities would help students effectively play “a critical role in creating a community of care, focused on the wellbeing of themselves and their peers,” as the policy articulates.

Leo Sainati is a SESP freshman. He can be contacted at leosainati2021@u.northwestern.edu. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to opinion@dailynorthwestern.com. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.

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