Drugs on Campus: a Sober Student’s Experience

When my oldest child entered college, we took several tours of campuses that interested him. We asked all the usual questions – smoking or non, where do you eat, safety, campus activities. I asked a few unusual ones – where are the smoke alarms, when are you getting sprinklers in the dorms? (Believe it or not, fire sprinklers are not required in all 50 states. Students who stay in a burning building without sprinklers because they believe the fire alarm was pulled as a prank AGAIN are really at risk)

One question we did not ask that I will ask when my youngest begins the round of college tours is this:

What do you do about illegal drugs and alcohol on campus?

My oldest boy is a straight and narrow arrow. He made the decision at 16 to not drink liquor. He has called me from high school parties to say that there are drugs and he is not comfortable and would like me to be the bad curfew mom so he has an excuse to go home. But it never occurred to either of us that making such choices is viewed as abnormal in college life.

We took a tour of Purchase College, State University of New York during his senior year, and he fell in love with the place. It helped that several of his classmates were also going, and that they were all involved in theater. We knew that there would be a druggie element on any campus. On the tour that day, everyone looked clean, sober, and purposeful. It looked like a happy place for him to be. A happy, freewheeling, artsy environment.

Well, within the first week of moving into the dorm in the fall of 2003, it was clear this was not a good fit. He was in a suite with 7 other students, 2 to a room. Only he and one other boy did not do drugs. The rest smoked marijuana and drank beer nonstop. The other sober boy disappeared after the first week.

That left my son to clean up the bong water and vomit, 7 days a week.

His roommate had a little cottage industry going on – go home to Bensonhurst, Brooklyn on the weekend and score some marijuana cheap. Put it in nickel ($5) bags and sell on campus at a profit. My son’s room was not a living space – it was a 24 hour wholesale “bongs, bags, and beyond” department store.

So he complained to the RA. Hmmm. Turns out the RA was a customer, or at least was sympathetic to the “party on dude” culture. He went to counseling, and told his counselor. Well, that was privileged information. No one could break confidentiality – or do anything. On parents day that fall, I raised the question – publicly in the auditorium – what do you do to control illegal drugs and alcohol? I was invited to meet with the security director privately. Also, the tone of the public answer was that parents would just have to let go of control and realize that students were going to try new experiences.

I went to the director of student health and voiced my concerns. My kid had just gotten off antidepressants – no way was he going back on them to cope with someone else’s illegal drug use. She gave me the speech again about how kids try stuff out at college, but that campus security does crack down. She told me the highly procedural way he needed to report the illegal activity.

He reported it. Campus security came into his room. His roommate of course was warned, so as not to invade his constitutional right to privacy. All the dope was shoved under blankets. No one had the right to make him remove the blankets. No one saw anything illegal. End of story.

Well not quite the end. My son was about to withdraw from school, and the party squad told him about a guy upstairs whose roommate was a Christian and making his life miserable. Maybe they would like to switch? They did, and he survived the year – but neither he nor the Christian roommate came back the second year. They transferred out of the “party school”. So did his high school classmates, all of whom are on a professional track for theater and writing.

As for the party squad – the roommate who sold drugs was finally busted for being drunk and disorderly after a female student who did not know him came back to her room and found him crashed dead drunk in her bed. He was expelled after he flunked out the first semester. But, my son and I saw him quite a bit the second semester anyway – seems he came back to “visit” and take care of his booming drug business. No efforts were ever made to stop this activity that we were aware of.

The following year, my son transferred to a smaller liberal arts college in New York City, with better security and better follow-through from residential life for drug offenses. When I visit that campus, there is always a guard at the front gate who stops me and asks who I am and where I am going. I never saw any such security presence at Purchase – it was very easy to come and go on that campus without anyone being aware.

My son is much happier. He is also applying to be an RA! But that freshman year at Purchase was an expensive lesson – he lost time and credits transferring, and spent a year being profoundly unhappy just coping with day to day life. Sophomore year, he had to adjust to a new school all over again. Purchase has a lot of great resources academically and professionally, but they were lost on him due to the chaos of residential “lifestyle choices”.

So ask the questions, particularly at a big school – how does security respond when drugs are being dealt in the dorm? What is the incidence of illegal drug use? What are the consequences? How is illegal activity reported and followed up on? If you get patted on the head like you are an obsessive worrywart parent, encourage your child to look elsewhere for college. Students have so many adjustments to make freshman year, they should not be forced to live amidst illegal drug and alcohol activity. Or clean up bong water and vomit.