Monday, January 9, 2017

Amethyst and Amnesty: Rethinking Drinking in the University by Benny Gottwald

In life, as it is in Greek myth, drunkenness is dangerous. This is common knowledge. That being said, convincing anyone who enjoys drinking to renounce alcohol on those terms alone would be a pointless endeavor. Most people understand the lethality of alcohol and choose to responsibly, sensibly imbibe. This understanding, however, doesn’t simply appear out of nowhere; it is learned.

Much of it is learned in college, where roughly half of all alcohol consumption is done by underage students (Stephenson). Going to parties and drinking is a popular weekend activity; one could argue it is a staple of college life. Despite the apparent danger and illegality of underage drinking, most of us do it anyway. This was also the case in Ancient Greece, and the Greeks had their own cultural way of warding off alcohol’s dangerous effects. Today, the most frightening part of drinking, for young people, is our limited experience. When incidents do occur, inexperienced party-goers are forced to learn their limits the hard way. Young drinkers, unknowing of their tolerance to alcohol, often place themselves in this situation while their peers panic and nervously contemplate what to do next.

Hofstra has a policy in place to ensure that next decision is wise. It’s called “medical amnesty.” It aims to “ensure that those individuals who require assistance for themselves or a friend who may have consumed excessive alcohol or drugs will turn to the appropriate personnel to seek emergency medical assistance without fear of reprisal for doing so” (Hofstra University). The policy’s greatest strength is not only about getting students the help they need; it is about dispelling the apprehension that most bystanders feel in the face of punishment. It morally transcends the law, prioritizing the health and safety of students instead. Every Hofstra student should be aware of this policy. Whether we choose to drink or not, realizing the benefits of medical amnesty guides us towards a greater understanding of our university’s perspective on drinking. Medical amnesty teaches us how to best navigate the culture of college partying, both as bystanders and as active participants. It defends us from the lethality of booze, and from our fear of punishment which far too often prevents us from calling for help.

The ancient Greeks had their own defense against drunkenness. The myth begins with the god of wine and revelry, Dionysus, who one day spots a beautiful young maiden walking by herself. In his drunkenness, the god decides to pursue her, intending to use his heavenly wine to ease her into his company. Little did he know, however, that the young girl was walking to pray at the temple of Artemis, Greek goddess of chastity. Seeing Dionysus approach, the girl prayed to her goddess, begging for her help to remain chaste. In response, Artemis swiftly transformed the maiden into a white crystal, protecting her. In awe of the girl’s chastity, and as a tribute to Artemis, Dionysus poured his ambrosial wine over the white crystal, turning it to a deep purple. The maiden’s name was Amethyst, and the precious purple gem draws its name from her. Ancient Greeks were fond of amethyst; they crazily believed the stone could protect them from drunkenness. Amethysts were carried by party-goers and goblets were often embezzled with the gorgeous stones in the hopes that they might shield their owner from a long night of vomiting.

While modern science can disprove the amethyst as an antidote to drunkenness, it cannot dispel its sentiment. Those who enjoy drinking, should they go too far, need a system in place that better guarantees their safety and, if necessary, offers them a much-needed learning opportunity. Medical Amnesty is that system, and Hofstra’s Department of Public Safety officers are the gems which guarantee its effectiveness. Author Jade Chu, in her piece “Public Safety Saves Lives,” writes, “Even though we have a strict rule with no alcohol on campus, Public Safety will never get you in trouble for something like this, or tell your parents. Their job is to make sure that you get the help you need” (Chu). Public safety officers are firm but friendly, even in situations that call upon medical amnesty. When we truly understand the everyday goal of Public Safety officers—to ensure the safety of all students—our urge to fear them disappears.

I experienced this phenomenon firsthand one night in late September, when a good friend of mine drank more than he could handle and had become terribly sick. Sitting next to him on the curb outside our residence hall, I tried my best to reassure him that he was going to be alright. My efforts alone were not enough to quiet his mind, which was no doubt scared and disillusioned. When he finally tilted his head up from the ground, he looked at me and said “I wouldn’t blame you for calling Public Safety.” I did as he said, and an officer was quick to arrive. He was comforting to my friend, who anxiously asked if he would get in trouble for his situation. The officer kindly replied, “Nobody’s in trouble here. Don’t worry.” As we sat waiting for the ambulance to arrive, I asked him, “So, do you get these kinds of calls often?” He snickered. “All the time,” he said. “It’s what we do.” That night I discovered how hugely influential a simple change of attitude can be, and how brave students can become as soon as their fear of punishment is lifted.

Several weeks later, in my interview with Bob McDonald, I discovered that every member of the Public Safety staff is as benevolent as the officer I had met that September night. I had the opportunity of talking with Mr. McDonald, Associate Director of Public Safety, about medical amnesty and Public Safety’s practice of it. “There’s been a change,” he told me, “not so much of attitude, but of services.” His enlightening explanation of the department’s role, in handling alcohol or drug related incidents, described Public Safety as a “conduit.” Public Safety officers are the first responders to any incident, of course, but they are also the effective conduits through which distressed students receive the services and care they need. “If you see it, call it.” He continued, “You don’t have to worry about repercussions. I think students do want to help other students, and the fact that there is amnesty means there’s no stigma attached to it” (McDonald). Public Safety, and the medical amnesty policy, make the safety of students their top priority, and it sends a positive, progressive message.

This approach—alleviating risk of punishment in return for the safety of students—was not originally Hofstra’s idea. While this university has gracefully implemented the policy, medical amnesty has been on the minds of university presidents ever since 2008, when John McCardell had an idea. As the President Emeritus of Middlebury College, McCardell was preparing to speak at a meeting of the Annapolis Group, comprised of 120 college and university presidents, when he and several of his colleagues from within the group sparked a debate surrounding the effects of the current drinking age. Their conversation was centered around the “culture of dangerous, clandestine ‘binge-drinking’—often conducted off-campus” and recognized that “alcohol education that mandates abstinence as the only legal option has not resulted in significant constructive behavioral change among our students” (Amethyst Initiative).

McCardell’s conversation expanded in size as his colleagues within the Annapolis Group began gravitating towards his idea of rethinking university attitudes towards drinking. Instead of vehemently enforcing the current law so frequently circumvented by students (at off-campus parties or with fake ID’s), McCardell’s idea was to reexamine the traditional disciplinary approach to college drinking. His movement became known as The Amethyst Initiative, and fellow presidents who participated in the discussion became its signatories. Today the initiative has 136 signatories, and while Hofstra is not yet on the list, it certainly echoes the sentiments of the Amethyst Initiative in its attitude towards alcohol. The morals that underpin these policies and conversations indicate huge progress on the part of colleges and universities. Today the topic of conversation is less often about the law, and more often about the safety of all students.

As university students ourselves, it’s important that we listen in on these conversations as best we can; the decisions vested in our university’s administration determine our freedom and our safety. The ancient Greeks had no method for testing their defense against drunkenness; their cultural explanation for its importance, the story of Dionysus and Amethyst, was a strong enough basis for their belief in the purple stone’s powers. As college students in the 21st century, we should take a valuable lesson from the drinking culture of ancient Greece: strengthening our belief in the things that protect us will only make us safer. Let’s create a culture that reveres Public Safety officers as the guardians they are, and let’s share our stories of their kindness and dedication. They have been there for us in our time of need, and they have fostered experiences that only help us grow. If we can boast that “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” we can also admit that learning to live without danger is wisdom stronger than strength itself.

Works Cited
Amethyst Initiative. "Statement." The Amethyst Initiative. Choose Responsibility, n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.
Braid, Fara. "History and Legend of Amethyst." International Gem Society. IGS, n.d. Web. 27 Oct. 2016.
Chu, Jade. "Public Safety Saves Lives: The Essential University Service." Taking Giant Steps. Giant Steps Press, 14 Feb. 2016. Web. 30 Oct. 2016.
Hofstra University. "Policy on Alcohol, Illegal, and Other Controlled Substances." Community Standards. Hofstra University, n.d. Web. 28 Oct. 2016.
McDonald, Robert K. Personal interview. 07 Nov. 2016.
Stephenson, Steve. "Prevalence of Underage Drinking." Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. JH Bloomberg School of Public Health, July 2011. Web. 01 Nov. 2016.

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