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Underage Drinking: Laws and School Policies

American colleges have a long association with irresponsible and underage drinking. But underage drinking in colleges is not just about breaking the rules. It is also a public health issue and a safety issue.

The National Institute on Alcoholic Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) has stressed the harm this substance abuse poses to young people, such as:

  • Health problems
  • Risky behavior, such as drunk driving
  • Deaths from alcohol poisoning or motor vehicle accidents
  • Crime, including assault and homicide

There are many reasons why schools enact policies to curb student underage drinking. They face pressure from federal, state, and local authorities. They also want to limit the resulting damage to the school's reputation. Additionally, they want to prevent liability to lawsuits involving the school.

This article provides a brief overview of underage drinking laws and school policies in America.

Underage Drinking in the United States

The United States maintains stringent drinking age laws. The minimum drinking age is 21 years of age nationwide under the National Minimum Drinking Age Act.

Law enforcement agencies heavily enforce these laws. For example, possession of alcohol by those under 21 is considered a serious offense that can lead to fines and suspension of a student's driver's license.

Consider Washington, D.C.'s laws on underage drinking. There, it is illegal to purchase, possess, or consume alcoholic beverages under the age of 21. The sale of alcohol to someone underage is also illegal.

If minors are caught drinking alcohol or involved in drug abuse, they could face penalties from law enforcement and their school. Many high schools and higher institutions have strict alcohol policies. These rules apply to all underage students. It does not matter if they are part of sororities, fraternities, or sports teams. Even off-campus incidents are still subject to school rules as well as state laws.

Underage drinking in college can lead to serious risks. Drinking can affect a student's grades and ability to focus on their studies. It can lead to unsafe situations like drunk driving. This can cause severe accidents and injuries. Underage drinking can also result in health problems, like liver damage or alcohol poisoning. Plus, when students are drunk, they may make poor decisions that could get them into trouble or put them in serious situations.

Underage drinking can also lead to an increased risk of sexual assault. This can occur among students or non-students. As a result, institutions and advocates emphasize the importance of underage drinking prevention.

Why Colleges Care About Underage Drinking

Most college students are not children in a legal sense. However, the truth is that most college students are new to the responsibilities of adult life. So, colleges carry the burden of guiding their students during this transition. They are also responsible for the safety of their students. Therefore, colleges accept some degree of responsibility for the students they enroll.

Schools can sometimes be held liable for specific injuries resulting from drinking. For example, if the drinking takes place on campus or in association with a student organization.

The federal government has also created incentives for colleges. These programs attempt to prevent underage drinking among their student populations.

The federal government cannot directly regulate colleges. However, the Drug-Free School and Communities Act Amendments of 1989 require colleges and universities to implement a program to prevent students from abusing alcohol and illicit drugs in order to qualify for federal funds.

At a minimum, the law requires that colleges:

  • Provide students with information about the laws regulating alcohol and drug use
  • Have penalties for breaking local ordinances, state and federal laws, and campus rules
  • Publicize the health risks associated with the abuse of alcohol, and
  • Make counseling, treatment, or rehabilitation programs available to the students.

As a result, school policies regarding alcohol are frequently the same as the federal and state underage drinking laws. College campuses nationwide created several initiatives to prevent the consumption of alcohol by minors. Health services will also usually provide services to students struggling with alcohol problems, such as binge drinking. This can include counseling and interventions.

Campus Policies on Underage Drinking

Most schools have a disciplinary code or another system of school discipline that includes penalties for underage drinking. They may ban the use of alcohol on college property. Or, they can ban alcohol in association with college-related activities.

Schools may also:

  • Prohibit sponsorship of campus events by alcohol retailers or producers
  • Restrict advertising or prohibit alcohol possession or consumption in residence halls
  • Designate specific areas where alcohol can be consumed and restrict access for students under the legal drinking age
  • Ban kegs or prohibit alcohol in places like parking lots to curb "tailgating"

Often, it's not practical to completely ban alcohol at all school events. So, many schools ask for a request before alcohol can be served at an event. This way, schools can still serve wine at a fundraiser, for example, without breaking its own rules. When they allow alcohol, schools might ask for hired servers. These servers can keep an eye on the age of attendees and watch how much they have had to drink at the event.

Can I Get Kicked Out of College for Underage Drinking?

If your school's disciplinary code or student code of conduct addresses underage drinking (which most do), then yes, the school can impose its own sanctions for alcohol violations. Depending on the severity of the situation, those penalties could include getting kicked out of school.

The school might also deny financial aid, put you on probation, or suspend a student who violates school policy or breaks the law. Schools may also require enrollment in a rehabilitation program.

If underage drinking occurs at an event sponsored by a student group, the college can hold the group and individuals accountable by:

  • Putting the group on probation or a "warning period"
  • Taking away their group status completely
  • Charging a fine
  • Making rule-breakers vacate university housing
  • Denying future requests to have alcohol at events

Many higher education campuses have zero-tolerance policies for underage drinkers. It is essential to understand your state's laws and school policies.

Legal Assistance in Campus Proceedings

Any adolescent caught drinking underage can face serious consequences. And those attending college or university might face additional penalties for breaking school rules on underage drinking. Lawyers who specialize in education can help. They can help guide you on your state and local laws about alcohol consumption.

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