The issue of amnesty: Opinions vary across campus over penalties for alcohol emergencies

Kelsey Ruane

An emerging trend among major universities, including the University of Pennsylvania, the College of William & Mary, the University of Virginia, New York University, Fordham University and Duke University, is the enactment of medical amnesty policies for alcohol-related emergencies.

Villanova’s current policy is to hold students who require Villanova Emergency Services accountable, including first-time offenders.

In the more severe cases of alcohol intoxication, such as those involving vomiting, Public Safety contacts VEMS.

“Public Safety is very good in helping us find patients when people don’t want to call us but should,” junior and VEMS Captain Billy Pandos said.

VEMS evaluates the student and decides whether to transport the individual to the hospital. By law, VEMS, similar to other Pennsylvania licensed EMT units, keeps all reports and cases confidential.

“We are here for students who need help,” Pandos said. “We are never out to get them in trouble.”

Thus, VEMS never notifies the University regarding violations of the school’s underage drinking policies. Most often, it is Public Safety or a resident adviser who files a report with Judicial Affairs, subjecting students to disciplinary action.

“They [VEMS] say you won’t get in trouble, but that’s false,” said freshman Alexander Dempsey-Olsen, referring to the fact that when VEMS is called, a Public Safety officer or resident adviser is usually already present at the scene to file a report.

“Violations [of the University Alcohol Policy] may result in disciplinary probation plus one or more attendant restrictions up to and including suspension,” according to the ’09 -’10 Student Handbook.

The issue in question is whether or not the threat of University sanctions discourages underage students from notifying a resident adviser or Public Safety officer in the event of extreme alcohol intoxication that may require medical attention.

“There are definitely some guys who I feel would come to me and definitely some who I think would try to deal with the situation on their own,” Stanford Hall resident adviser Chris Capurso said of the male students on his floor.

“Medical amnesty would provide more incentive to call VEMS,” said freshman Danny McKiernan.

Though, others worry about medical amnesty’s potential to condone underage drinking.

“I think it [medical amnesty] sends the wrong message,” said Ryan Rost, assistant dean of students for Judicial Affairs. “Our policies are consistent with the law. In life outside of Villanova, you have to continue to follow the law.”

Some fear medical amnesty will encourage students to drink more heavily.

Since Cornell University put a medical amnesty policy into practice in 2002, the school has found “an increase in both calls to the emergency medical services (EMS) and hospital emergency room visits of acute alcohol intoxication with nonconcurrent increase in the amount of drinking on campus,” according to its Health Services Web site.

Last fall semester, Erica Upshaw, who has become a medical amnesty activist after the death of her brother in 2000 at Ohio State University, spoke at a Delta Gamma chapter meeting at Villanova. Her brother, Joe Upshaw, died in an alcohol- and drug-related incident after passing out and not receiving the medical attention he should have, due in part to his friends’ fear of getting in trouble.

“I see benefits to an amnesty policy, as well as some challenges,” said Kathy Byrnes, associate vice president for Student Life. “Fortunately, at Villanova people seek help. They put their friends first, and that’s one of the good things about the Villanova community.”

Confidence in students’ judgment while intoxicated is not shared by everyone.

“I think people are indeed reluctant to call VEMS because they are afraid to get in trouble, but they need to call VEMS if medical attention is needed,” Pandos said.

At universities with medical amnesty policies, student governments have been influential in promoting the change.

“Medical amnesty is an important issue that has been brought up in SGA’s executive board meetings,” Student Body Vice President Spencer Curtis wrote in an e-mail. “It is currently on our table for discussion.”

For Capurso, residents’ safety always comes first, regardless of what kind of trouble they could be in with Judicial Affairs.

Only one of his calls to VEMS this year has resulted in transportation to the hospital.

“It’s worse if someone were to be hurt [if VEMS were not notified], rather than if I call and a student gets in trouble,” Capurso said.

Elizabeth Brennan, Daina Amorosano and Laura Welch contributed reporting to this article.