TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Campus drinking, and how police respond, is in the national spotlight

College campuses face a difficult balancing act in responding to excessive drinking by underage students. Punish too little, and you send the message that dangerously illegal behavior is tolerated. Punish too much, and you deter the student who was sexually assaulted while under the influence from reporting the attack, fearing expulsion for drinking.

There may not be a single “right” balance, but the issue is worthy of greater discussion on every campus — and public records can be the starting point for that conversation.

First, find out if your college has an “amnesty policy” that exempts students from discipline if they acknowledge they’d been drinking before being assaulted. Many colleges do. Here’s an example from the University of Florida, which says it will not charge students with violating the student conduct code if they come forward for medical attention, or to report a sexual assault, having consumed drugs or alcohol illegally.

Although campus amnesty policies are not binding on local police, who may still bring criminal charges even if the campus refrains from bringing disciplinary charges, some state laws also provide a safe harbor for those who seek help in alcohol- or drug-related emergencies. The advocacy group Student for Sensible Drug Policy reports that four states (Colorado, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas) have banned criminal prosecution of underage drinkers who seek medical assistance for over-consumption.

People on campus often are unaware that a law or school policy protects against adverse consequences for admitting alcohol or drug use, so it’s a valuable service for student media to explain the exact boundaries of that protection and regularly remind people that it exists.

It’s also a valuable service to question why no policy exists. Student journalists at Elon University’s campus newspaper, The Pendulum, recently took an in-depth look at the underreporting of sexual assault on their North Carolina campus, and cited the lack of a formal amnesty policy as one of many reasons students might be reluctant to come forward. (The head of Elon’s violence prevention office said she has an “understanding” with the student disciplinary office, but it isn’t committed to writing or well publicized.)

The way colleges punish underage drinking is a story not just for its own sake, but also to highlight the lack of consistency as to the way schools report imposing discipline.

Last month, Ohio’s Newark Advocate used public records to examine the extent of binge drinking at Denison College and at comparable Ohio schools. Advocate reporters quickly discovered enormous variations in the frequency of arrests and disciplinary actions reported at seemingly similar colleges. The variations raised questions about (a) whether enforcement really varies wildly depending on the policies of the college and its police department or (b) whether the seeming inconsistency resulted from colleges filing inaccurate disclosure reports.

Under the federal Clery Act, colleges must publicly report each year on the number of drug and alcohol arrests on campus, as well as the number of disciplinary sanctions imposed for drug or alcohol infractions. The disciplinary statistics tend to vary so wildly among campuses — a college with 2,000 students will have more substance abuse cases than a college with 20,000 — that the discrepancies can’t logically be explained by differences in students’ behavior alone. Either enforcement policies must differ, or some schools’ reporting practices must be deficient.

Because the Clery statistics were known to be questionably reliable, the Advocate did something especially clever — getting public records from the local fire department reflecting the number of times students from local colleges were transported to hospitals (or to the student health center) for alcohol-related conditions.

This is an example of how journalists even at private colleges can take advantage of open-records laws to inform the public — by figuring out which state, county or city agencies interact with their private institution. Private colleges need not respond to state open-records requests, but a county fire department most certainly must.

Sexual assault and binge drinking are front-burner safety issues for every college campus, and journalists equipped with curiosity and a working knowledge of public records laws can help lead a well-informed discussion of these problems.