Student Senate town hall meeting gathers input on substance abuse issues

town-hall-forum-275.jpgA town hall forum sponsored by the SMU Student Senate attracted about 150 participants and generated lively discussion on the issue of alcohol and drug abuse at SMU. For 90 minutes at the Oct. 22 session, students asked questions and gave their views to the University’s Task Force on Substance Abuse Prevention, appointed by SMU President R. Gerald Turner last spring.

“The Student Senate has a longstanding tradition of protecting the rights of the student body,” said Patrick Kobler, Student Concerns Chair of the Student Senate, at the start of the meeting.

“We want students to take ownership of this issue on campus,” added Student Body president and Task Force member Katherine Tullos, “and we encourage you to present solutions along with the problems you describe.” Read more. (Daily Campus photo by John Schreiber)

The major topics included policies such as medical amnesty and Good Samaritan, enforcement issues on and off campus, the role of Greek organizations, and how the Task Force is conducting its work.

From assistance to enforcement

Much discussion revolved around possible implementation of Good Samaritan and medical amnesty policies. The former would allow students to seek emergency help for peers who are at medical risk because of alcohol or drug abuse without being penalized if they themselves have been participants. A medical amnesty policy would provide the same opportunity for those who are themselves at risk and seek help. SMU Police Chief Rick Shafer, a member of the Task Force, confirmed that the group is looking into such policies, and Task Force member Anthony Tillman, director of retention in Enrollment Services, encouraged students to provide input on whether such policies would work.

Other discussion centered on the expressed perception that the SMU Police Department has written an unusual number of alcohol violation citations during fall 2007. “We have 178 violations recorded so far this year versus 117 at this time last year,” Shafer reported. He added that one factor in the increase may be the recent outsourcing of parking enforcement. Because SMU Police are no longer writing parking tickets, “officers have been freed up to do more police work this year.”

A community member and former SMU parent asked about off-campus enforcement, suggesting that University officials visit local bars and liquor stores to remind them of alcohol laws.

The campus culture

Student suggestions included continuing the AARO mentoring program through the first year, keeping the Memorial Health Center open nights and weekends for primary-care emergencies, requiring sophomores to live on campus, and providing more on-campus social activities. Task Force member John Sanger, director of Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention, said the Task Force is looking into the possibility of monitored on-campus parties, but added, “It’s interesting to note that the high-risk behaviors still go on at off-campus locations. Students are doing shots off campus before they arrive at parties on campus.”

Some students offered mixed reactions to programs such as, suggesting that by the time students reach college, they have already heard that information, and it may be too late to change behavior patterns that started in high school.

“The fact remains that many students choose to drink before they turn 21, Sanger added. “I want them to make lower-risk choices in high-risk situations, and also to look out for their peers in those situations.”

Role of Greek organizations

In response to questions about whether Greek organizations have not been singled out for special scrutiny, Task Force member Dennis Foster, D.D. Frensley Professor of English, explained the Task Force’s research involving 13 focus groups that are “looking at all dimensions of the issue.” Because Greeks live on campus, he said, any examination of drinking on campus is going to involve Greek organizations, as well as those who live in residence halls.

“Quite often people look to the Greeks to provide leadership,” added Task Force member, parent and SMU trustee Jeanne Tower Cox. “If there’s been a focus on those organizations, it’s been in a good way — those leaders can help us reach other students very effectively.”

Seeking drug abuse information

Meanwhile, the Task Force needs more information about drug use on campus, Professor Foster said. “Most of the input we get is about alcohol use.” Foster noted that the Live Responsibly Web site blog, which he coordinates, allows students and community members to comment anonymously. “Please, if you can tell us something, do,” he added.

“Our drug problem doesn’t just come from Dallas. It is also on campus,” one student said, questioning the presence of “taxicabs cruising secure campus parking lots at night.”

Shared responsibility

Some students voiced concern over negative publicity resulting from the three student deaths last year, and one student from Chicago said it will hurt her career opportunities there after graduation.

“When bad things happen, bad things get reported,” said Task Force member Patti LaSalle, associate vice president for public affairs. She explained that such tragedies are police matters and as such are public record, and the University also releases a statement. “Those tragedies need to be public so that people understand the issues. SMU students are the ones who ultimately determine the academic reputation of the University through their actions. There is high visibility in Chicago now because two of the three SMU students who died from substance abuse last year were from the Chicago suburbs.”

Associate Provost Tom Tunks, Task Force co-chair, reminded the group that the Task Force has not yet made any recommendations, and the town hall forum has been part of the information-gathering phase. He added: “I’ve been here since 1980, and I think it’s fair to say that we have a wonderful university and student body.” The Task Force’s effort, he said, is not a matter of “us versus you, but all of us against the problems we uncover. You can’t legislate good sense, so we have to nurture it and let it grow.”

Assessing the meeting, Tullos said, “The Town Hall Forum allowed students the opportunity to bring up their opinions and concerns on the important issue of alcohol and drugs on campus directly to University administrators,” she said. “Students were able to engage in an honest and open discussion and the line of communication between the task force and students was increased.”

Comments can be made at the Live Responsibly Web site blog. The Task Force is scheduled to provide recommendations in December.