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Richson: Iowa needs a lifeline law

BY BRIANNE RICHSON | AUGUST 30, 2013 5:00 AM

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On Aug. 23, an Indiana freshman fell down the stairs at an off-campus party and died. Although it has been confirmed that there was alcohol available at the party, it is unclear whether intoxication played a role in the injuries the woman sustained when she fell down the stairs and was knocked unconscious. In this case, no one did anything for hours, and by the time help arrived it was too late.

Starting off the welcome-back-to-campus weeks in this manner is probably every university’s nightmare, but the reality is that what happened at Indiana is symptomatic of a larger issue in an underage drinking culture prevalent in the Big Ten and other conferences. People fear the consequences of calling for help in an underage-drinking situation, and such consequences (or lack thereof) are not explicitly advertised — “just don’t do it” policies seem to be favored instead.

Students at Indiana lobbied hard along with students at Purdue for last year’s new Lifeline Law, legislation designed to encourage underage adults to request medical assistance for those who may have drunk too much while granting all fully cooperating parties involved immunity from charges such as underage possession and underage consumption. Might the tragedy at Indiana have been prevented if such laws were better known, if the students knew that law enforcement values safety above all in most circumstances?

Currently, such laws are rare. Only seven states have so-called Lifeline Laws, the first of which was Colorado’s, enacted in 2005. Six more trickled in between 2009 and 2011, but there has since been a lull. A study of medical amnesty conducted by Cornell University in New York, one state to eventually pass a Lifeline Law, implied that with campus reassurance of medical amnesty for callers alerting medics to an underage-drinking emergency, students were more likely to seek medical attention when necessary.

Iowa, like its Indiana, is no stranger to showing concern for the underage-drinking culture. Just this week, we all received a friendly Hawkmail message reminding us that the “Party Patrol” plans to take to Iowa City’s streets once again this year in order to bust up parties on the verge of getting out of hand. But Iowa doesn’t have a Lifeline Law.

The university does have a “Good Samaritan Policy,” but the fine print is not quite as progressive as Indiana’s Lifeline Law. Iowa’s policy stating that if medical attention is sought by and for those underage, there will not be consequences “in most situations.”

That ambiguity and the obscurity of that policy are problematic. In an emergency, students must know they are free to call 911 without fear.

Chelsey Gates, the coordinator of Red Watch Band, an organization that teaches students to recognize the warning signs of alcohol overdose, said student care should never take the place of calling for help.

In an emergency, Gates said, “it shouldn’t be the students’ responsibility to make a decision.”

What happened at Indiana should be a wake-up call that we need a broader program of emergency amnesty for students.

There should be a national, or at the very least conference-wide, recognized consensus on medical amnesty because we’re college students, and a lot of times we’re stupidly selfish. Too often, you can count on us to make the totally wrong decision. We don’t always need our hands held, but in this case, we probably do.


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