Spring is in the air -- and on the beach as well. For the better part of March, thousands of college students from around the nation trek to Florida to engage in the revelry that is synonymous with spring break. They'll tan all day on vast beaches and party all night in the clubs and bars. And, of course, they'll drink.
Some of them will be underage, and some will be arrested. Last year, Daytona Beach Police displayed for local TV newscasts hundreds of fake IDs they'd confiscated during the monthlong party.
The facts are different than the image, however. College-age drinking, surveys show, is down from recent years. Still, the perception remains that teens and young adults in America are out of control and need increased supervision. The results: Some high schools now test their athletes for drug use; others require students to sign forms allowing police to randomly search their cars.
Privacy -- typically stripped away under the guise of safety -- is under attack.
Case in point: a Feb. 18 vote by the Florida Board of Regents allowing the state's 10 public universities to notify parents if their child's use of booze or drugs -- on or off campus -- is deemed detrimental to the "health, safety and welfare" of the student or those around him.
Florida is one of the first to jump on this national trend, which began at the University of Delaware in 1997. The next year Congress effectively sanctioned Delaware's policy by passing a law allowing colleges to notify parents of trouble if their college-age students are under 21. The previous requirement, based on a 1974 law, allowed for notification only if the student was a dependent.
Regent Steve Uhlfielder modeled his proposal after the Delaware program, which requires the school to notify parents of dependent children under 21 if their child violates any school codes.
The action followed a Princeton Review article that ranked two Florida schools -- Florida State and the University of Florida -- among the nation's top 10 "party schools," no doubt rankling the administrative body.
Student groups initially claimed Uhlfielder's plan violated their rights; after all, they say, college students are 18 and over. A compromise between the board and the Florida Student Association led to the "health, safety and welfare" clause.
But while regents put that guideline in place, they failed to outline specifics to determine how, exactly, a student's health and safety might be judged in peril. It left that to each university.
"I'm glad they let campuses decide what will work best," says Craig Ullsom, assistant vice president of student life at the University of Central Florida, who will craft UCF's policy. Meetings with student groups -- for example, student government, fraternities and sororities, and residence-hall assistants -- eventually will produce a draft of what the school hopes to accomplish.
Privacy rights, Ullsom says, will be a consideration.
On the one hand, if the schools crack down, they risk upsetting student groups; on the other hand, people such as regent Uhlfielder don't want a school's first call to be the one in which it tells parents their child has died as a result of his or her excess.
Notification likely will be based on the frequency and severity of the offense. In other words, if a student is caught with a beer in his dorm, that's not -- at least in the spirit of the rule -- a major offense. If he's caught again, things might be different. Drugs and DUIs, officials say, will be treated more seriously.
But does this action open the door to more privacy restrictions? "I'm always leery of setting a precedent," says Florida Student Association director Kevin Mayeux. "A student has to be safe first. I guess it makes sense to get them help. If they're going to use this as a tool for helping people, then that's something we're going to support."
The association didn't have much choice. Had they not worked with regents on a compromise, the board likely would have passed a stricter ruling, much like Delaware's. "It's a huge concession," Mayeux says.
But this is not something the student association would advocate on its own. Rather, it favors a program that "focuses on education, instead of punitive, knee-jerk reactions," Mayeux says. Schools should invest in counselors, alternative on-campus functions, and a marketing campaign telling students that, essentially, college drinking is overrated, he says. The association says that only one in five students "binge drink," which means consuming more than four (for women) or five (for men) alcoholic beverages in one sitting at least three nights every two weeks. On weekends, 20 percent of students drink. That's far fewer than the general perception, says Mayeux.
Uhlfielder says drinking at Delaware has dropped dramatically since the program began. But he concedes that binge drinking is not something the university system can wipe out, even if it wanted to. After all, he drank in college. "This is not meant to be punitive," he insists.
Surprisingly, it's not been an issue for students at large, perhaps because the regents' vote was taken amidst the hubbub of the "One Florida" proposal to end guarantees for minority student enrollment. That wasn't the case everywhere. Facing a proposal similar to Delaware's, the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana held a referendum, and students voted down the idea, 85 percent to 15 percent.
"It's a complete violation of privacy," says Illinois student body president Jeff Shapiro. The result isn't exactly as he'd like -- the university, he says, probably will still adopt a policy allowing for notification based on safety issues like Florida's. But unlike Florida, the new proposal will have specific guidelines prohibiting schools from notifying parents for minor offenses.
Says Mayeux: "I think it's going to be fine." But until all the universities firm up their own policies -- presumably to be implemented next fall -- no one will know for sure. "If they abuse `the policy`," he says, "we'll correct the situation."