Amnesty policies provoke debate
Published: Thursday, March 12, 2009
Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 18:01
Cornell University pioneered a Medical Amnesty Policy (MAP) in 2002 to deal with drug and alcohol abuse and the medical emergencies that result from it. The policy, also referred to as a "good Samaritan" policy, allows students to call for transportation to the infirmary or hospital for themselves or friends without fear that the school will take judicial action against them, in the hope that students will be more willing to seek medical attention for a drug or alcohol related illness. Since then, over 90 schools have adopted similar policies, including Emerson College in Boston, which changed its policy several months ago. Recently, Boston University began debate over the adoption of a similar policy, but has not reached a conclusion.
The Alcohol Task Force Committee at Boston College has been debating the issue of a medical amnesty policy regarding alcohol-related illness for the past few months. Harvey Simmons, vice president of UGBC Senate and A&S '11, and Justin Pike, executive staff member in the UGBC and A&S '11, are the two student representatives on the Alcohol Task Force Committee. The task force is composed of students, faculty members, and administrators from a variety of departments. "We are going to be active members of the Alcohol Task Force so that when the decision is made, it is a decision of the University and not of a particular person or department," said Henry Humphreys, dean of residential life. The committee is determined to come to a well-informed decision that can be supported by all administrators of the University, from implementation to enforcement.
Current BC policy states that if a student goes to University Health Services (UHS) under his own power or with the aid of a friend, due to medical confidentiality, that student will not receive disciplinary action, regardless of his state of intoxication. If a student requires transportation by the Boston College Police Department (BCPD), then a police report will be made for the incident, and the student will receive disciplinary action if he has been drinking underage. The proposed MAP could take one of many forms, all of which state that no disciplinary action would be taken toward a student calling for transportation for a friend who needed medical care, or the person receiving care. The policy, if put into effect, would protect students from repercussions in alcohol related cases only and would not apply to the abuse of other substances.
The members of the Alcohol Task Force Committee have been weighing various pros and cons for months to determine whether a MAP should be put in place at BC, what it would be called, and what the specific nature of such a policy would be. "There are two main barriers for getting medical attention to those who need it in the case of an alcohol related illness: the first barrier is that people fear getting in trouble, and the second barrier is that people don't know how to identify when to call for help based on the severity of illness. For a medical amnesty policy to be effective, it must address both of these barriers," said Brett Erhardt, president of Eagle EMS and A&S '09. "This means that a medical amnesty policy must both get those who call for transportation to a medical facility 'out of trouble' and involve increased education for the student body to be able to better identify alcohol related illness."
"Ideally, the policy would assure that if a student was in his room, violently ill, and their buddy had a couple drinks, that he would not fear to seek medical attention for his friend," Simmons said. "Yet, of course there is the concern that students at a party might try to use medical amnesty to get out of regular disciplinary action." He said that it is important that with any medical amnesty policy, there is an emphasis on dealing with each situation on a case-by-case basis. "I think that engaging in conversation is a central part to it," he said. Simmons also stated that students shouldn't think that by invoking medical amnesty that they will not have to deal with the incident afterward. "A follow up with the student is definitely needed, even if it is not disciplinary," he said.
"The important thing is that all of our policies are designed to educate, not to punish. When people land in the hospital, people are put into an educational program along with other possible outcomes," said Paul Chebator, dean of student development. He said that this educational program would still be used in the case of medical amnesty, and only the disciplinary aspect would be left out.
The negatives to implementing a medical amnesty policy were also noted by several members of the Alcohol Task Force Committee. Erhardt said that he sees the two main negatives being that a MAP might enable students to drink more because they would be less worried about becoming very ill due to alcohol if they knew that they could rely on safe transportation to a medical facility with no disciplinary repercussion, and that this policy would create inconsistencies in the enforcement of alcohol policies on campus. "This creates an inconsistency in policy enforcement. If a person is underage and gets caught with a beer, he still gets disciplinary probation. A student who drank 20 puts himself in the hospital and yet doesn't get in trouble," he said.
Even though over 90 colleges and universities have adopted some form of a medical amnesty policy, the statistical data available for the effects of the implementation of such a policy is sparse. "As far as I know, there has only been one scientific study based on statistical evidence of the effectiveness of a medical amnesty policy; this was the study done of Cornell's policy," Erhardt said. This study was based on surveys of students at Cornell both before and after the medical amnesty policy was in place.
The study, published in the International Journal of Drug Policy, concluded that a medical amnesty policy does not change dr=inking habits but had the potential to change the number of treated instances of alcohol related illness. It said that the main reason why students did not call for medical assistance was that they were not sure if the student in question needed professional medical care or not. The second biggest reason was fear of getting in trouble. The number of students who avoided calling for medical help due to fear of getting the person in trouble and due to uncertainty of the severity of the situation both decreased after implementation of the medical amnesty policy, according to the study.