Questions raised about College’s amnesty policies

Imagine this: Several freshmen decide to spend the night partying in a Travers Hall dorm room. It is just after midnight when they realize one of their friends has had a bit too much to drink. Eventually, she starts vomiting and it becomes apparent she needs medical attention. Her friends are worried for her safety but don’t want to get into trouble themselves. After all, every student present is under the legal drinking age.

What should they do?

For a freshman health and exercise science major named James, this was not a hypothetical moral dilemma. It was a real decision he was faced with on the evening of Saturday, Jan. 31.

To remove hesitation to call for medical assistance in the event of an emergency related to alcohol, many colleges have a “Good Samaritan Policy” in place. Also known as “amnesty,” it is a life-saving measure designed to encourage students to call for help by removing the possibility of punishment for doing so, even if the caller and the student in danger are both under the legal drinking age.

According to Director of Residential Education Tina Tormey, there are two separate amnesty policies that can apply at the College — Lions 911 Lifeline Legislation, which is how campus administrators handle incidents involving alcohol or drugs, and NJ 911 Lifeline Legislation, which is how Campus Police handles the criminal side of an alcohol- or drug-related incident.

Lions 911 Lifeline Legislation reads, “The College’s highest priority is the physical and mental health, safety and well-being of individual students and the campus community. Therefore, no student seeking medical attention by contacting either College or local authorities for intoxication (nor a student who seeks medical attention on behalf of the affected student) will be formally charged for the unlawful use or possession of alcohol.”

Once they realized their friend was in danger, James and his friends called TCNJ EMS for help.

“I had known of the Good Samaritan law, but I didn’t know how the school would handle it,” James said.

Once TCNJ EMS arrived, he said that Travers Hall Residence Director Nailah Brown and patrolling community advisors (CAs) came to the room. James’s friend was transported to the hospital for medical attention.

“(Brown) saw empty containers,” James said. “She didn’t know that we had helped call EMS, but we told the other CAs that were with her that we did.”

Another section from the College’s Student Conduct page reads: “Those who call for help or need such help will not be subject to charges otherwise triggered by violation of laws dealing with underage drinking.”

Although James and his friends were not subjected to criminal charges, he said they were still documented, or “doc’ed,” by Brown and the CAs who came to his door.

“If a student is ill due to alcohol or drugs, we respond as we would in any other case involving alcohol or drugs,” Tormey said. “We document the case so we have it on record and so that we can refer to it when we meet with the students involved. We want there to be some kind of follow up to check that there are no lingering health issues from the incident.”

James said that his amnesty meeting was with Christine Nye, the College’s assistant director of First Year Experience.

“(She) said that the doc wouldn’t go on our records, but that we needed to go to ADEP (Alcohol and other Drug Education Program) still,” James said.

ADEP at the College stresses personal responsibility and an understanding of the consequences of using alcohol and other drugs, according to the program’s website.

“Students qualifying under the amnesty policy may be referred to the Alcohol and other Drug Education Program (ADEP) for an evaluation and/or additional education,” the College’s amnesty policy reads. “Such referrals or assignments will be kept on file and failure to successfully complete such may result in disciplinary action through the formal student conduct process.”

For some students, a referral to ADEP might seem like a punishment, meanwhile, the purpose of amnesty is to reduce consequences for students in order to encourage them to call for help.

“I hope students look at their time (in ADEP) as an opportunity to reflect and learn from their situation, not as a punishment,” said Joe Hadge, assistant director of ADEP.

Hadge said that ADEP is free and totally confidential for students who utilize the program. He went on to explain the process of assisting students who are referred to him after an alcohol-related incident.

“My first question for a student is ‘What’s your biggest problem right now?’” Hadge said. “Sometimes, they were arrested, they haven’t told their parents yet and they’re afraid of losing housing privileges. It’s all about listening and figuring out the best plan for them.”

Hadge said that students in ADEP, and students at the College in general, can use eCheckup To Go, a brief self-assessment on the ADEP website that provides them with information about their personal alcohol use and risks.

“It is a chance for them to safely and non-judgementally be able to reflect on their alcohol use,” Hadge said. “And when in doubt, always call for help.”

The College’s amnesty policy goes on to read, “…the effort to seek help for the affected student may be a mitigating factor in sanctioning. Affected students may be required to complete an evaluation or other education programs, but will not face disciplinary charges or sanctions as prescribed through the student conduct process.”

Some students might find the wording confusing. While the first sentence outlines that a student’s effort to seek help for someone else may be a “mitigating factor in sanctioning,” the second sentence explicitly states that a student will “not face… sanctions” from the College.

So, which is it?

According to Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), an international non-profit advocacy and education organization, a comprehensive Good Samaritan Policy should include “a clearly worded, easily accessible, effectively enforced policy which is well known among the student body, campus administration and campus public safety officers.”

Nye said that the College’s amnesty policy is well-known among campus administrators.

“The professional staff with Residential Education are trained in regards to the College’s Amnesty Policy,” she said. “However, our protocol for response to an alcohol- or drug-related incident is the same regardless of whether it does or does not fall under the College’s Amnesty Policy or 911 Lifeline Legislation… 911 Lifeline Legislation applies to criminal conduct and has slightly different definitions and different people responsible for determining (those definitions).”

According to Tormey, determining whether or not an incident falls under the College’s amnesty policy is simple.

“We just ask, ‘Did someone seek help for that person because they feared for that person’s safety?’” she said.

Tormey clarified that a student who is underage and under the influence of alcohol or drugs would not fall under amnesty if someone calls to report them for noise or hygiene complaints. It only applies to students whose health or safety is at risk

To qualify for amnesty in the eyes of campus administrators, help can be sought from CAs, Campus Police and TCNJ EMS, among other safety outlets. The criminal amnesty policy handled by Campus Police has similar qualifications, according to John Collins, the College’s chief of police.

“The law provides immunity from criminal prosecution for both the caller and the victim when medical attention is needed due to excessive drinking, provided certain conditions are met,” Collins said. “Those conditions are that one of the underage persons with the victim calls 911, that they stay with the victim until help arrives and that they cooperate with the responding medical personnel and/or police.”

Collins clarified that students are not restricted to just dialing 911 to qualify for amnesty — they can also dial Campus Police’s number (609-771-2345) from any phone, as well as the extension 2345 from any campus phone, to request help.

“The fact of the matter is they are trying to get help for someone in need, so we consider that eligible for immunity, regardless of the actual phone number that was used to request help, provided the other conditions were met,” Collins said. “The same should apply if a student called a CA and asked them to get medical help.”

Collins said that the College’s amnesty policy is rarely utilized by students.

“We haven’t been tracking amnesty situations,” he said, “but generally speaking, there haven’t been too many of them.”

James is grateful, though, that he was able to use amnesty to get help for his friend.

“(Nye) was very appreciative that we helped our friend and said hopefully, if it happened again, we would do the same thing and call (for help),” James said. “But she said that if we were to get doc’d again, they could take this incident into consideration,”

Regardless of whether or not the College amends its amnesty policy to be more transparent, James hopes that students will always put a friend’s safety first.

“Everyone fears the unknown to some extent,” he said. “If students were aware that there isn’t really a serious consequence for helping a friend, I believe that there will be more calls and hopefully more lives saved.”

Tormey stressed that in the future, students should make an effort to have at least one sober friend with them when they choose to use alcohol or drugs.

“It’s important to have a sober friend around to make decisions for you when you can’t,” she said. “It doesn’t just apply to designated drivers. If you surpass the point where you can’t make a good decision for yourself, you need someone around who can, even if you’re just drinking in a dorm room.”

This story originally appeared in The Signal.

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