Hazing and the Medical Amnesty Act on College CampusesIn the U.S., many students enrolled in colleges and universities take part in a dangerous practice called binge drinking. Some of these students drink voluntarily, while others do so under coercion during a hazing ritual.  Whatever the reason for binge drinking, the activity can lead to life-threatening alcohol poisoning and other serious problems. Unfortunately, since most students are not legally entitled to drink, they may hesitate to call for help in an alcohol-related emergency. In recent years, states across the nation have adopted medical amnesty policies designed to encourage underage drinkers to call 911 without fear of legal repercussions.

Underage Drinking on College Campuses

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) reports that nearly 60 percent of all people attending college consume alcohol in a given month[i]. Most of these students are under the age of 21 and therefore don’t meet nationwide standards for legal drinking. Students on America’s university campuses binge on alcohol more often than their age peers not enrolled in college. They also have a greater tendency to drive while intoxicated. Other known harms of underage college drinking include:

  • Heightened risks for accidental death
  • Heightened risks for violent behavior
  • Heightened risks for sexual assault victimization
  • Increased chances of poor academic performance
  • Increased chances of developing clinical symptoms of alcoholism or alcohol abuse

Binge Drinking on College Campuses

Binge drinking is widely defined by public health officials as the consumption of enough alcohol to reach legal intoxication in a two-hour timeframe[ii]. NIAAA figures show that roughly two-thirds of all college students take part in this activity on a monthly basis. Anyone who drinks heavily in such a short span of time runs the risk of suffering from alcohol poisoning. This condition occurs when there is enough alcohol in circulation to slow down activity in the central nervous system (brain and spinal cord) below a sustainable rate.

Anyone affected by severe alcohol poisoning can potentially die. The list of poisoning symptoms includes[iii]:

  • Vomiting
  • A confused mental state
  • Pale or bluish skin
  • Convulsions
  • Very slow breathing
  • Large gaps between breaths
  • A complete lack of breathing
  • A noticeable drop in body temperature
  • Unresponsive unconsciousness

Regardless of their age, all people who display even one of these symptoms should receive medical attention as soon as possible.

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Hazing on College Campuses

Hazing is the general term for any form of mistreatment used during an initiation or rite of passage. On America’s college campuses, roughly 25 percent of all hazing rituals involve some form of drinking game[iv]. In addition, more than 10 percent of all such rituals involve drinking enough alcohol to induce unconsciousness or vomiting. The groups most likely to haze prospective members include:

  • Varsity sports teams
  • Fraternities and sororities established for social purposes
  • Informal or club sports teams
  • Clubs dedicated to the performing arts
  • Service fraternities

In about 75 percent of all cases, only other students are present during hazing activities.

The Hesitancy to Call for Help

Throughout the U.S., anyone under the age of 21 who consumes, purchases or distributes alcohol is breaking the law. Depending on the situation, people engaged in these activities may face a fine or arrest. In addition, any underage college student who commits an alcohol-related infraction can face on-campus penalties that include:

  • Disciplinary hearings
  • Loss of a scholarship
  • Sports participation bans
  • Fraternity or sorority bans
  • Club bans
  • Expulsion

For these legal and school-related reasons, students witnessing emergency situations that involve alcohol consumption may hesitate to call for medical help. They may do so because:

  • They are intoxicated themselves
  • Their peers in distress are intoxicated
  • Other peers at a gathering or event are intoxicated
  • They purchased the alcohol responsible for triggering the emergency
  • They distributed the alcohol responsible for triggering the emergency

Along with the illegality of hazing itself, these motivations help explain why fraternities, sororities and other organizations involved in hazing activities have been known to abandon their intoxicated pledges and not get help. Since time is of the essence in such situations, this hesitancy or complete failure to act can increase the odds that the affected person will experience severe health complications or die.

Medical Amnesty Laws

Medical amnesty laws[v] are designed to encourage everyone, including minors, to call 911 for medical emergencies that involve the use of alcohol or drugs. Most states across the country haven enacted this type of amnesty legislation (also known as a good Samaritan law or 911 lifeline law). Typically, it protects intoxicated minors from at least some of the legal consequences of underage alcohol use, possession or distribution.

The protections provided by a medical amnesty law apply to the person experiencing the effects of alcohol poisoning or other alcohol-related problems. They also apply to the person who calls for emergency assistance. Studies show that 911 calls from minors rise sharply in places that have enacted amnesty laws for underage drinkers. At the same time, these laws do not appear to increase the likelihood that minors will consume alcohol in the first place.

Encouraging Students to Call for Help During Emergencies

State-issued amnesty laws shield underage drinkers from some of the legal consequences of their actions. However, these laws do not provide any on-campus protections. Instead, the creation of such protections is the prerogative of each college system or individual campus.

As a rule, schools with clear, well-publicized amnesty policies make it easier for students to call 911 during alcohol- or drug-related emergencies. For example, the University of Texas at Austin has created a comprehensive campus policy that includes detailed instructions on how to respond to such emergencies[vi]. Not all college students know that medical amnesty laws and policies exist. This means that universities and health officials can also improve the situation with public campaigns intended to educate and increase minors’ awareness of the available campus protections.

  1. National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism: College Drinking
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Binge Drinking
  3. Mayo Clinic: Alcohol Poisoning
  4. StopHazing.org: Facts and Statistics
  5. The Medical Amnesty Initiative
  6. University of Texas at Austin – HealthyHorns/University Health Services: Student Amnesty for Alcohol and Drug Emergencies
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