Kansas University officials deserve credit for trying to address two difficult issues related to the recent death of a 19-year-old student.
Jason Wren, a KU freshman, was found dead in his fraternity house last month after a night of heavy drinking. His parents have confirmed that his death was alcohol-related and have criticized the university for not communicating with them about their son’s drinking problems, which led to his dismissal from a KU residence hall after the fall semester.
These are two difficult problems. What can parents, friends, a university or society as a whole do to try to reduce dangerous alcohol consumption by young adults? Lowering the drinking age hasn’t helped. Raising it would be an interesting, but perhaps dangerous, experiment. It’s illegal to sell alcohol to people under 21, but alcoholic beverages obviously are readily available to people in that age group. Some parents even condone alcohol consumption in their own homes on the theory that at least the teens will be supervised there.
The role of universities in supplying parent-like supervision of students’ alcohol consumption and most other aspects of their lives has changed significantly in the last several decades. To respect students’ status as adults able to handle their own affairs, universities largely have dropped their parental role. Closing hours are a thing of the past. Students used to be banned from even having a car on campus when they were freshmen. Such a restriction would be unthinkable now.
Unfortunately, as a result, when something happens that parents should know about, they may remain in the dark because of university policies against releasing information to parents. It’s difficult for a university to know where to draw those lines of communication.
Universities can’t monitor students on a day-to-day basis and have legal restrictions on providing information, but they have the option to communicate with parents concerning the health and safety of their children without the student’s written consent. For instance, dismissal of a student from a residence hall for alcohol violations might warrant direct communication with parents rather than letting students put their own spin on the reason for the action. Even parents who generally have great communication with their children aren’t always going to get the real story about a bad situation.
There are no easy answers, but it’s good that Wren’s death has raised the questions. Irresponsible consumption of alcohol by young people isn’t something universities alone can solve, but perhaps new lines of communication can be drawn to allow parents to get involved and avoid similar tragedies in the future. It’s at least worth a look.