Supporters of a bill say students would be more likely to call for medical help if they didn’t risk penalties for underage drinking.
Abby Huebsch was making the rounds in a University of Minnesota dorm, part of her job as an adviser, when she saw a young woman sprawled on the bathroom floor. The 19-year-old was confused and disoriented, Huebsch said, strangely out of sorts after a few glasses of wine.
A friend was with her but had not called for help.
“She just kept saying, ‘I don’t want to get us in trouble,’ ” said Huebsch, now a senior. “She kept repeating that over and over again.”
Students are often too scared of getting ticketed for underage drinking to ask for the aid they or a friend might desperately need, student leaders say. They’re backing a bill at the Legislature that would give underage drinkers protection from prosecution if they call 911 because of a medical emergency — maybe a friend who’s out cold after a night of heavy drinking, or got beat up at a party or was sexually assaulted.
Hundreds of colleges across the country, including Winona State University and Minnesota State University, Mankato, have enacted similar so-called “medical amnesty” policies on their campuses. State laws are less common but might be becoming more popular.
The bill is “good public policy that puts students’ lives and dignity before a fine,” said Taylor Williams, student body president at the University of Minnesota. He and Huebsch told lawmakers that students’ hesitation to call for help is “a huge problem” with a clear fix.
But the Minnesota Sheriffs’ Association testified against the proposal in a House committee, saying it could encourage underage drinking and hinder enforcement. The group worries that “all a person would have to do is say is, ‘Oh, I have a medical emergency’ ” to avoid getting busted at a party, said Jim Franklin, the association’s executive director.
He supports an amendment to the House bill that makes clear that to be protected, a young person must call 911, then stick around until assistance arrives.
Like others in law enforcement, Franklin points out that officers have discretion in deciding whether to charge someone with underage possession or consumption. In most cases, they say, officers are not ticketing underage drinkers when responding to a medical call.
How big a problem?
Greg Hestness, police chief at the University of Minnesota, said he’s been “pretty pleased” with his officers’ judgment in deciding what’s most important when out on a call: “Typically, it’s not putting a citation in the shirt pocket of somebody being loaded on a gurney.”
Medical amnesty has been a big topic among university police chiefs, Hestness said, as states such as Indiana have passed similar laws. The U police department has not taken a position on Minnesota’s bill.
Hestness wonders whether it might be “a nonexistent problem chasing a solution.” A bigger problem, he said, is students not using good judgment because they’re impaired themselves.
About a quarter of Minnesota college students had recently engaged in “high-risk” drinking — downing five or more drinks in one sitting — according to a 2012 survey at 10 colleges and universities.
That survey also found that about 69 percent of students said they would be “very likely” to call 911 when someone passes out after drinking or doing drugs and cannot be awakened. But among students who drank within the month, a slightly smaller share, 65.7 percent, answered “very likely.” About 12.5 percent of drinkers said they would be “somewhat” or “very unlikely” to call 911.
That’s too big a number, some students say. In working on this bill, student leaders compared notes, “and every single student had a story about a time they didn’t call or their friend didn’t call,” said Huebsch, who is studying finance. “It’s amazing we haven’t had a tragedy yet.”
The House bill’s sponsor, Rep. Tina Liebling, DFL-Rochester, said it “will tell students in Minnesota that, above everything, we care about their health and their lives.” But some lawmakers worry the proposed legislation sends a different message — that underage drinking is OK.
“This law does start down a slippery slope ... on sanctioning what is now criminal behavior,” said Rep. Tim Kelly, R-Red Wing.
Amnesty in Winona
At Winona State University, “as with pretty much every other campus in the country, alcohol is continually a problem,” said Karen Johnson, dean of students.
In April 2012, after a year of discussion, the university adopted a medical amnesty policy meant to “encourage students to take responsibility ... and call emergency medical personnel for help when there is reason to believe that someone needs medical assistance due to the consumption of alcohol or drugs,” the rules read.
“Honestly, I started out with mixed feelings,” Johnson said. “I certainly don’t want to condone underage drinking. Often, it’s the sanctions that are a deterrent for next time.
“On the other hand, the bottom line is the students’ health and safety.”
The new policy requires a student who gets a drinking ticket to request a meeting within five days to avoid sanctions from the university. So far, no student has requested such a meeting, she said.
Between April 2012 and the end of March 2013, Winona State students got 162 tickets/citations from Winona police. But Johnson cautioned that it is unclear how many, if any, would have been eligible for medical amnesty.
Johnson believes a state law would create more consistency for students considering their options. Right now, she noted, she “can’t do anything about the drinking ticket they get from the police.”
Would it make a difference?
A study of Cornell University’s medical amnesty protocol found that it made a difference: The number of alcohol-related emergency calls grew 22 percent from 2002 to 2004. The share of students who didn’t call for help and cited fear of “getting the person in trouble” as the reason dropped 61 percent.
Still, that was not the main reason students declined to call. The most common response was: “I wasn’t sure the person was sick enough.”
Student security monitor Tony Maxam favors the amnesty law because of what he’s seen on the night shift. From 11 p.m. to 7 a.m., once every week or two, Maxam patrols a University of Minnesota residence hall filled with his fellow freshmen. He has witnessed a few ugly situations in which it’s clear someone needs help, yet friends haven’t asked for it.
When you’re really drunk, “your safety is in the hands of the people you’re with,” Maxam said. “And if the people you’re with are unsure about calling ...
“Even uncertainty wastes time.”
Jenna Ross • 612-673-7168