Up Close | Two years later, drinking still a ‘ticking bomb’

It was half-past eleven, but the night was hardly still. Amerigo Fabbri stepped outside on the evening of Saturday, Oct. 27 — almost a year ago — to see roughly four hundred students, dressed in costume and wielding red plastic cups, crowded in the lower and main courtyards of Pierson College. Music blasted from speakers mounted on windows.

Alarmed by what seemed to be an impromptu mob, Fabbri, the Dean of Pierson College, acted quickly and with caution; he called the police.

The mob, though, turned out to be Pierson’s annual “Inferno,” a Halloween celebration that dates back to 1977 and, predictably, the event’s organizers were initially incensed to see it broken up. Most students were able to leave Pierson without any consequences, but some were not so lucky. Police cracked down on students holding cups and bottles. They stopped at each, asked for identification, wrote a ticket and moved on.

Within minutes, the party was broken up, leaving little else but disposable cups, glass bottles and a keg in the lower courtyard. For the moment, all was calm in Pierson College. The night was finally still.

Four semesters have passed since Oct. 1, 2006, when a new Connecticut law made those who facilitate or knowingly allow underage drinking just as responsible as the drinkers themselves. While the law initially stirred administrators — residential college masters, for instance, had to rethink how they traditionally interact with students — two years later, the legal weight of liability has yet to fall on anyone’s shoulders and, as such, is no longer a primary concern.

After all, not one administrator has faced criminal charges or a civil suit. And all this despite alcohol enforcement policies that are widely, though at times tacitly, acknowledged to be lax, especially compared to colleges across the country.

“So far, we’ve muddled through it,” Jonathan Edwards College Master Gary Haller said frankly.

Residential deans and masters interviewed said the law’s responsibility clause applies to them, acknowledging that the scene at the Inferno could have happened to any of them. Legal experts said the 2006 statute is explicit. Even General Counsel, the University’s legal authority, concluded that the law could apply, Yale spokesman Tom Conroy said. There is little doubt that administrators can, under certain circumstances, be held responsible for underage drinking, though there is no precedent for it in Connecticut.

Nationally, however, the trend is moving quickly toward increased liability for institutions and, in some cases, individual employees.

It may not be until a serious incident occurs, an intoxicated underage student who seriously injures himself, for example, that the law will — once-and-for-all — be clarified in the context of residential college life, several administrators admitted. For that matter, the extent to which — in terms of jail time or punitive damages — in-house masters and deans are currently responsible for their students remains to be seen.

Stir in one part underage consumption, three parts uncertainty and a pinch of misfortune and legal experts and some administrators say there is reason to believe that the University will soon find itself mixing a potentially volatile cocktail.

On the rocks

Administrators were well-versed in the law even before the revised Connecticut statute took effect. The debate over whether or not masters and deans are liable was the hot topic of 2006, especially at the outset of the 2006-’07 academic year.

At the Council of Masters’ annual retreat in 2006, the potential ramifications of the law dominated discussion. Heads of the residential colleges emerged from those meetings and conversations with a clear sense of the situation they faced. When asked, in an interview, if she considered masters to be liable for the underage drinking they witness, Silliman College Master Judith Krauss responded bluntly.

“The new law clearly holds us accountable for knowledge of underage drinking and not doing our best to stop it,” Krauss, who is also the chair of the Council of Masters, said.

Since the law’s outset two years ago, it has been illegal for minors to be in possession of a closed container of alcohol anywhere, while prior to the law only public possession was prohibited. YPD spokesman Lt. Steven Woznyk said police assumed the authority to enforce the law on private property. Administrators see most of the changes in statute regarding underage drinking as relatively minute; consumption by minors has long been against Yale’s official Undergraduate Regulations.

But the law threw them a curveball.

In interviews, legal experts said a clause that was primarily aimed at parents and guardians became immediately pertinent to the deans and masters who reside alongside, and are responsible for the well-being of, their students.

“No person having possession of, or exercising dominion and control over, any dwelling unit or private property shall … knowingly permit any minor to possess alcoholic liquor … or knowing that any minor possess alcoholic liquor … fail to make reasonably efforts to halt such possession,” the law states.

In a residential college setting, anyone from a master to a student of legal drinking age could potentially fall under the scope of the statute.

Upon a repeat citation, both underage possession of alcohol and failure to halt underage possession of alcohol upgrade to misdemeanor charges, but carry different punitive consequences. For the underage drinker, a second offense means another fine worth somewhere between $200 and $500. For the adult who fails to halt possession of alcohol by minors, a repeat offense could mean a $500 fine, a year of prison or both.

During September of this year, the Yale Police Department issued nine infractions to University students for liquor-related offences; that number last September was 17.

Residential college administrators said in interviews that, given the circumstances, they could identify with Fabbri’s decision to summon the Yale Police Department; there had been a grave miscommunication between students and the heads of the college.

Safety first, the deans and masters echoed.

Across the nation, individuals who serve, furnish or knowingly permit the serving of alcohol to people or minors in a non-commercial setting – legally defined as social hosts – are subject to liability depending on laws or judicial precedents set in their respective states. Connecticut law unequivocally dictates that an adult can be imprisoned on a misdemeanor charge for knowingly allowing minors to consume alcohol.

If consequences arising from that minor’s consumption of alcohol are serious enough, such as a drunk-driving accident or alcohol poisoning, social hosts in other states have also been charged with reckless endangerment or manslaughter.

Moreover, a social host could, potentially, be civilly liable for any damages incurred by intoxicated individuals – damage done to themselves, to others or to property. In states where social host liability is dictated by the law, like in Connecticut, violation of that law has often been enough to establish negligence on the part of the host in a civil liability case.

Yale Law School professor Peter Schuck, who specializes in torts, believes there is reason for the University to be concerned about criminal charges. Civil claims, on the other hand, are less clear cut, he said.

“This criminal provision does not necessarily mean that a victim of underage drinking would have a [civil] claim against the university,” Schuck explained. “That would be a matter for judicial interpretation.”

Peter Lake, a law professor and director of Stetson University’s Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy, said that the stage may already be set for a big lawsuit.

“Some criminal statutes become civil standards in a tort case, and it looks like these are good candidates for that,” Lake said.

“A lot of heads are going to roll over this,” he continued. “I think you’re going to see college presidents fired and lawyers losing their jobs.”

Shaken, not stirred

“None of the masters, I would say, are pleased by the law because it converts us into watchdogs,” Former Ezra Stiles Master Stuart Schwartz told the News last year. “That’s not why any of the masters took their positions. That’s not what we want to do.”

The line between freedom — allowing students to experiment with alcohol as college students have traditionally done — and enforcement is one administrators said they do not actively try to cross unless they have to. To most masters, the job of strict policing is ideally left up to campus police.

Masters do not patrol their courtyards and actively try to break up parties, Krauss said, but only if the situation requires it, or if their attention is drawn. The preferred method of enforcement is often simple dialogue. The very semester that the amended state law took effect, for instance, the Council of Masters introduced a uniform application for party registrations. The form includes several stipulations: hosts under the age of 21 cannot serve alcohol, hosts 21 and over must sign a contract agreeing not to serve to minors.

The goal of the form was to establish an understanding that the law should be upheld, Krauss said. General Counsel’s view, Conroy explained, was that the measure would “reduce the incidence of underage drinking.”

When asked about the reality of the situation — the fact that underage students end up drinking anyway — Krauss smiled and answered, “I think we’ve got to do everything we can to help people have reasonably contained parties. We have to err on the side of safety.”

Three masters admitted that the formalities do little to contain the realities of undergraduate life. Students under the age of 21 will continue to find ways to drink, they said.

Case in point: the new alcohol czar being put forth by the Yale College Dean’s Office. The University has made it clear that the position, to which no one has been appointed as of yet, will play a purely educational role. There will be no enforcement task involved, YCDO officials have said.

Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry agreed — if Yale’s policy toward alcohol had to be summed up in a word, it is ‘education.’

While, since the 1960s, four-year colleges have strayed away from the mindset of in loco parentis — the thought that colleges had a wide mandate to act in place of a parent — legal pressures seem to be pushing back against giving students too much freedom.

Lake, the Stetson law professor, said he believed that college administrators are having a hard time adjusting to the reality of the law, because they themselves grew up in a time when there was sparse legal regulation of colleges and a “laissez-faire attitude” toward alcohol.

“Frankly, many administrators are still stuck in the ’70s,” Lake remarked. “They picked [the mindset] up genetically, and they’ve been dealing with it ever since.”

But administrators continued to persist that their policies toward student drinking have always been the same.

“It’s not a new emphasis on [the law],” University Deputy Secretary Martha Highsmith said, in light of an increased amount of arrests on campus last year. “It’s a different standard … and the police have to follow that.”

Most concerns seem to have waned in importance. Dean of Student Affairs Marichal Gentry said questions of liability have not come up in any meeting he has had with college deans. Gentry took over his post in 2007, some time after the law had already been in place.

“I don’t think any of the masters are unaware of it,” Haller said. “It just seems to not be a thing that is discussed daily.”

Krauss agreed. Masters do not necessarily have the specific language of the alcohol law in mind when they make their courtyard rounds on the weekend.

But it could just be a matter of time.

Over two decades ago, during the 1986-87 academic term, sophomore Ted McGuire went out for a night of drinking. He started his evening at a college-sponsored party in Saybrook. He ended up being carried up flights of stairs to his room and set on the floor by his roommates for the night. McGuire never woke up.

Until 1987, references to alcohol in the Yale Student Handbook were few and far between. In time for the 1987-88 academic year, two chapters, which dealt with parties and general regulations on alcohol, were added.

Yale’s Undergraduate Regulations stand as a formal, textual foundation for student life. Still, the manner in which the Regulations prohibits underage consumption often takes a back seat to the University’s more informal policy of educating students and acting, at the foremost, on behalf of student safety.

The morning after

Administrators allude frequently to the vagaries of the current legal situation. Most have outright stated that clarity will only come through crisis. Not one master, nor one dean, has been fined; not one student, nor parents of a student, have pressed charges, spokesman Conroy said.

So, in a way, the University continues to throw blind in a game of darts. Elsewhere across the country, this is hardly the case.

The highly publicized 1997 death of Massachusetts Institute of Technology freshman Scott Krueger, for instance, ended with a $6 million settlement with the University. Krueger was discovered dead in his room after a night of heavy drinking; the fraternity where he was drinking, as an organization, was eventually charged with manslaughter.

And as recently as last year, the death of Rider University freshman Gary DeVercelly resulted in the indictment of not only three members of a fraternity, where DeVercelly got drunk, but also the dean of students and the director of Greek life at Rider. The charges were eventually dropped, but the impact was instant. College administrators scrambled to avoid similar ends.

157 people, ages 18 to 23, drank themselves to death from 1999 through 2005, a recent Associated Press report, which analyzed federal records, found.

Perhaps it is why one master referred to the current situation as a “ticking time bomb.”

This past August, a community of college presidents from roughly 100 institutions made a public call for the drinking age to be lowered to 18. The goal, they said, was to reduce binge drinking. One social host liablity legal expert, who declined to be named because she said the comment could hurt her employment prospects, quipped, “maybe they think the way you eliminate underage drinking is to just call it ‘drinking.’”

In Amerigo Fabbri’s hometown of Lucca, Italy, the word Libertas is painted and engraved on many of the monuments and banners. It is an overarching expression of the city, a reminder of Lucca’s longstanding resistance to foreign powers and its persistence in democratic ideals.

Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan cites Lucca as the most successful example of free society in the world. Even Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace pays homage to the Italian city in its opening sentences.

As he sat in his office recently on a Tuesday afternoon, hair tied back and legs crossed, Fabbri said he wished that he too could give his students unbridled freedom, but often worries that a skewed culture of alcohol can lead to problems. He firmly asserted his belief that students should learn to separate alcohol from fun — that they should look out for the safety of one another.

“You are your brother’s and sister’s keeper,” Fabbri wrote recently, in an e-mail to Pierson College students.

This year, Fabbri said he has emphasized communication with his students. At times, he said, an all-senior Pierson tradition, Tuesday Night Club, was at risk of spiralling out of control. Fabbri sat down with his upperclassmen and set out a clear set of expectations; the event would be kept to seniors in the college’s lower courtyard, and would be cleaned up before the morning.

The results, he said, have been encouraging.

Comments

  • Potential YU Alcohol 'Czar/Director' Candi

    Great article capturing the current pulse of YU's disparate alcohols mores on multiple levels in an arguably fairly accurate, if not totally comprehensive, way.
    Certainly, this was no small feat within an institution where young lads (& lasses in more recent years)have found the time to 'discover' alcohol's effect in one form/degree or another in ways that have been documented more than two centuries back.
    There is undoubtedly a kernel of truth in framing this as an issue of education (i.e. involving the goal of a more rudimentarily, at least, enlightened 18-22+ year old student body).
    In light of this fact, referenced in previous YDN articles, Dean M. Gentry and any associated vetting commitee have seemingly exercised great prudence in not settling on a less than appropriate candidate for this potentially impactful position.
    This , in my humble estimation, would involve equal doses of in-the-trenches, 'keeping it real' mentality with that of academic gravitas (i.e. intellectual compatibility w/YU's decision makers).
    JMcH.