Thats the letter that Phillip Jones, the Universitys vice president for student services, sends to parents of underage students caught with alcohol in downtown Iowa City bars.
We heard from a number of parents last spring, Jones says. Their children were assaulted in downtown bars, and they wanted to know why the University wasnt taking a more active role in preventing that kind of thing.
Student records are generally off limits to parents, as mandated by FERPA, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. About four years ago the federal government amended the law because of concerns about excessive drinking. But Iowa continued to inform parents only when a student was engaged in self-destructive behavior, such as a suicide attempt, or passing out in public and being taken to a hospital. The final straw for Jones was the April 2002 Etc. bar fire, in which a stunt gone wrong resulted in underage UI students being badly burned.
Its clear that weve got more than just a casual problem, Jones says.
The University began notifying parents of incidents at the start of the 2002 fall semester, sending PAULA (Possessing Alcohol Under Legal Age) letters to parents of students cited for underage drinking in downtown Iowa City. In the past, the Office of Student Services would send about 50 letters to parents per yearbetween August 29 and early October of this year, they sent 217.
The information is already public record, but in the past, informing parents was left up to the student. The response from parents of cited students indicates that some students werent forthcoming with that information. Jones notes a letter he received from an upset parent who said that his child was a nondrinker and that the police acted inappropriately. After checking with the officers who issued the citation, the parent learned that this was a second offense for his nondrinking child.
If your student is cited, ask for a copy of the ticket, Jones says. It describes the violation. Students often say that it was someone elses drink on the table in front of them, but the police Breathalyze anyone they cite under those circumstances. And according to the police, 85 to 90 percent of those cited have a drink in their hands, and the ticket will note that.
Although the University sends PAULA letters, they dont become a part of a students permanent record. They are a part of the city record, however. The citys minimum fine for a PAULA offense is $150.
Not surprisingly, many UI students object to the letters. Jones says he frequently hears students complain that given the proximity of so many downtown bars to student housing, drinking downtown is safer than drinking at house parties, and cracking down on it means the University and city are encouraging students to drink and drive.
What theyre really asking is for us to give them permission to break the law, he says. If theyre concerned about safety, then they should just not do it.
Some parents also wonder if cracking down on drinking is necessaryafter all, many remember drinking as part of their own college experience.
Parents have to look at this from a contemporary standpoint, not the world as it was 20 or 30 years ago, Jones says. The marketing of alcohol has greatly intensified, and the number of bars in downtown Iowa City has increased tremendously. There are 10 bars on the pedestrian mall alone, and 25 downtown establishments with liquor licenses. The bars in downtown Iowa City used to close at noon on football Saturdays, so everyone could go to the game. Thats not whats happening now.
In addition, Jones notes that students who drink too much are hurting other students. Two-thirds of UI students say they have had their study or sleep interrupted by drinkers. One in three said they have been pushed, hit, or assaulted. One in four has had property damaged.
Providing alternatives to drinking has been a priority of the University for a number of years. The Stepping Up project, funded by a grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has explored campus drinking issues and provides some funds for alcohol-free activities such as Night Hawks and Night Games. Stepping Up also funds a series of advertisements that raise awareness about the fights, sexual assaults, and damage that result from alcohol excess. The grant that supports Stepping Up recently was re-funded.
Getting that grant is a backhanded compliment, Jones says. The University of Iowas rate for binge and underage drinking is 20 percent higher than the national average, so thats the downside. Jones notes that a survey indicated that 65 percent of the students who binge drink at Iowa did so before college.
Its not like they started drinking when they got off I-80, he says.
The positive side of getting the grant is that the foundation saw the potential and willingness within the University and the community for change.
Its all about teaching people to understand the limits and be accountable for their behavior, Jones says. Id be happy to stop sending the PAULA letters if I could, because that would mean that people were being responsible for their behavior.
Linzee Kull McCray