By Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller - OSV Newsweekly, 9/9/2012
Drinking habits were different when Thomas C. Pellegrino, J.D. Ph.D., attended Fairfield University in Connecticut in the 1980s.
“In that kinder and gentler age, we used to sit around the beer keg and kind of sip slowly,” he said.
Now “pre-gaming” is popular at both Catholic and secular colleges.
“That’s getting as drunk as possible, as quickly as possible and as cheaply as possible,” he said. “That’s where you mix hard alcohol with sugary drinks because you want to get a buzz that will last through the night, before you even go out.”
Pellegrino is vice president of student affairs at his alma mater in Fairfield, Conn., where, he said, underage and other drinking problems have actually dropped in the past five years.
“There are different reasons why,” Karen Donoghue, the Jesuit university’s dean of students, told Our Sunday Visitor. “One is that we are intentional about really focusing on students, especially in the first six to eight weeks when they are being acclimated to campus life. We really try to connect with them and encourage them to get involved with programs on the nights and weekends. Colleges and universities tend to report that when students don’t have academic rigor, there are voids that they sometimes fill with alcohol. At Fairfield, we have a pretty rigorous curriculum.”
When incidents are filed against students who violate the campus code of conduct, the first action, Donoghue said, may be to have a conversation with the student about the incident and what led to it.
“We are trying to understand the reasons for the alcoholic behavior and to help them to identify it,” she told OSV. “Do they want to fit in and there’s peer pressure? We try to look at the behavior and how to change it, or at least give them some advice to prevent it.”
Sanctions can include education about use of alcohol or a meeting with one of the Jesuits to reflect on their behavior. In serious cases, students may be mandated for substance abuse counseling, and in extreme cases, they may lose housing or be dismissed from the college.
Similar sanctions also can apply to sexual misconduct including sexual harassment, voyeurism and physically aggressive behaviors such as rape and date rape.
“Generally, sexual misconduct is underreported on many campuses, and one reason is the stigma attached to it for the victim. Oftentimes they don’t want to come forward and prosecute,” Pellegrino told OSV. “Many incidents have involved using alcohol and that’s certainly not a defense to the consent rule. There’s also a lack of attention to victims of sexual violence and of their need to come forward and really understand their options. We want to make sure that they get treatment, get to a safe space and know their options.”
Fairfield, Pellegrino added, is generally a safe place “with good students,” but students can lose control. The university participates in the Red Watch Band movement, which raises awareness of risky behaviors on campus.
“Students are trained peers to help if someone is engaged in or sees risky behavior and they recognize the red watch [they’re wearing] to gain help,” Donoghue said. “We are training students to watch out for each other and to be part of the community. Sometimes students don’t want to get help if maybe they drank too much, but they should never fear getting in trouble for getting help.”
The university has an amnesty program that will respond to calls for help without sanctions for violating the code of conduct.
“Jesuit education is about moving beyond mediocrity,” Pellegrino told OSV. “This is a safe place to look at why you are making mistakes, and to take ownership of yourself and go for improvement.”
Looking out for each other
Nevertheless, colleges and universities have to be in compliance with social host laws and other liability laws that can hold them responsible for incidents that could result in criminal or civil charges.
“We talk about sexuality to cultivate virtue and all those great things that Catholic colleges do, but by law, we have to talk about sexual assault and sexual harassment to our students,” said Josh Clary, dean of students at St. Gregory’s University in Shawnee, Okla. “Sexual assault is a very egregious offense and it stems from other things. Little things, like the language you use and the names you call others, can snowball into a bigger effect of how you treat others. Calling a woman a ‘b----’ desensitizes people to the hurtful effects of words, and when it becomes easier to use words, it becomes easier to use actions.”
What’s defined as sexual harassment or assault is not new, Clary added, even though it may appear that there’s now more of it.
“It was there before in the students’ parents’ generation,” he told OSV. “Now it’s talked about more, and students are more aware and are not going to hide it or keep it a secret anymore.
“This is a different culture in general, and they come to us already having been exposed to sexuality and talking about it in much more open ways. So we have to address it more than in the previous generation.”
The Benedictine university participates in a Bystander Intervention program that, in line with Catholic social justice, encourages people to look out for each other.
“We are all bystanders to sexual harassment and assault and we can create a culture where this is not acceptable,” Clary told OSV. “You can turn it around with distraction, or by saying we have to get out of here. There also needs to be an understanding of what’s acceptable, what’s out of bounds, and there’s this whole argument of what is sex? Then there’s the matter of if you’re impaired and can’t give consent. If you are sober and have sex with a drunk person, that’s rape.”
No campus is without sexual problems, but, Clary said, the way Catholic colleges and universities address those problems is different.
“A model of virtue is what we want for students,” Clary told OSV. “This is about respect because you are created in the image and likeness of God, and this is how you should treat everybody.”
Expectations to succeed can put so much pressure on students that the stress sends them to counseling at campus health centers.
“They are exposed to so much more than 20 years ago, and sometimes their coping skills just aren’t there,” Renee Agner, dean of residential life at Belmont Abbey College, a Benedictine school located in Charlotte, N.C., told OSV. “Part of that is that we don’t want our children to fail so we give them every opportunity to be successful. But by doing that, if they haven’t ever failed with something, they may not have the coping mechanisms needed in being new college students and being adults going out in the world.”
In another generation, she said, people talked to each other more, and challenged each other more in face-to-face relationships. That has changed in today’s tech-driven world.
“If things went wrong, you leaned on family and friends,” Agner said. “There wasn’t this drive that exists now to succeed in everything. It is through failure that we grow.”
In recent years, Agner added, there has been an increase in the number of students who are on medications for emotional problems.
“Then when some of them get to college and start feeling good and enjoying themselves, they decide they don’t need medication,” she said. “But the reason they feel well is because they are taking it. College can be a stressful time, and if they stop taking their medication, they can develop some significant problems.”
If that happens, the counseling department may refer students to outside resources, she said.
“We will all work together to get the students back on track,” Agner added. “We work very hard with students to make sure they are doing everything they can to be successful.”
Maryann Gogniat Eidemiller writes from Pennsylvania.
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