Stanford University has been the target of recent criticism for becoming permanently exempt from a recent Santa Clara County ordinance that holds all landowners responsible for any under-age drinking that occurs on site, regardless of prior knowledge of such activity. Enacted in 2008, the ordinance is meant mostly to target parents whose daring teenagers host parties when left home alone. Violators of the ordinance can face fines up to $1000, a sum that clearly adds up considering that Stanford is home to nearly 6,300 undergraduates, most of whom are not yet of legal drinking age.
“As a university, we are in line with the spirit of what [Santa Clara County] is trying to do,” said Ralph Castro, director of the University’s Substance Abuse Prevention Project. “Our own policies already act as a sort of social host liability law and they’ve been in place since the mid-1990s.”
An Educational Approach
Stanford’s alcohol-related policies are not explicitly “zero tolerance,” as might be expected of a university with a mostly under-age student population. “At Stanford, we take a educational approach to dealing with alcohol, and we assume that all students will make smart decisions.”
The educational approach Castro refers to consists of a three-hour, online Alcohol Edu course completed by all incoming freshmen prior to their campus arrival. Additionally, the University has taken new, stricter measures to help reduce alcohol abuse on campus such as increasing campus security on nights when parties are scheduled, requiring all student groups and fraternities to register and seek approval by administration before hosting any social gathering, with or without alcohol, and requiring that any individual attending an on-campus party must present valid student ID.
The Open Door
Despite these measures, the University respectfully does not employ tactics such as random room searches or the breathalyzing of students, which other campuses do. Many believe Stanford to have an “open-door” policy, as goes the speech most Residential Advisors (RAs) give freshmen upon arrival to campus.
“This is a colloquial term that students use to describe our educational approach given that RAs and other staff talk frankly with students about substance abuse,” said Castro. He further emphasized that this frankness in no way translates as promoting or allowing under-aged drinking. Instead, “We promote safety and good decision making practices.”
ASSU Senator Adam Creasman agrees with the University’s approach stating, “I believe that Stanford students are responsible adults, fully capable of moderating their own drinking with the right support.”
While trusting students to this extent may seem risky, Creasman believes there is more to be gained from this approach rather than implementing a police state. “The open-door policy discourages certain unhealthy and dangerous drinking patterns, like intense pre-gaming behind locked doors, while allowing students to seek the help of RAs in those rare instances that a policy change would result in more instances of alcohol poisoning does occur.”
Why We’re Exempt
While Stanford is under the oversight of both state and municipal governance, in regards to alcohol regulation the university follows its own policy, which in no way violates or circumvents Santa Clara County’s ordinance. Rather, the ordinance has inspired Stanford to crack down harder on offenders; certain houses or fraternities have been put on probation for alcohol-related offenses, and an increasing police force has insured that citations will issued appropriately.
Castro explained, “We told the county, ‘we support what you’re doing and we’ve been doing it too, and we’ve had policies in place that directly do this.’”
Having evaluated Stanford’s situation and the way the university deals with and punishes reckless drinking habits, Santa Clara County exempted Stanford from the ordinance in 2008 for a full year’s trial period. This year, county officials reexamined Stanford’s policy and programs, deeming it worthy of permanent exemption from the ordinance on the basis that it already addresses the issue in a constructive manner, in no way promoting under-aged substance abuse.
Stanford, however, is not entirely free from all county oversight. “We will be working with Santa Clara’s Department of Alcohol and Drug Services, presenting reports to prove to them that what we’re doing is effective and reason enough to continue our exemption,” added Castro.
That said, Creasman believes that Stanford’s implicit, open-door policy has always been perfectly legal from the start. “RAs are not police officers—they’re just like you or me, and they do not have a legal responsibility to report violations of the law.” He further argues that while deputies of the Stanford Department of Public Safety are required to enforce the law, “…[they] are not allowed to enter student residences to investigate possible violations of the law without probable cause (under the 5th amendment).”
The University holds to the assumption that their methods are more valuable than excessive punishment or strict supervision. “We want students to be safe and to look out for each other,” said Castro. He further explained, “The type of work that I do is to get students to make good decisions, not to promote under-aged drinking—and it’s a fine line when you do this sort of education.”