Colleges may be forced to curb alcohol use
MIT's rare admission of partial blame in a student's death signals shifting responsibility.
Like hundreds of freshmen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the fall of 1997, Scott Krueger was scrambling for a place to live in Boston. He found a fraternity house off campus. Five weeks later he was dead.
Scott drank himself into unconsciousness during a hazing ritual, urged on by his fraternity brothers. Almost instantly, his death became a source of nationwide outrage over alcohol abuse on college campuses.
Several schools - and even a few fraternities - decided to "go dry." Others strengthened alcohol-awareness programs.
Now Scott's alcohol-reform legacy is resurfacing in a way that promises to shake and reshape higher education again.
MIT last week took the nearly unprecedented step of accepting partial responsibility in Scott's death, apologizing publicly and paying $6 million to avoid a lawsuit by his parents.
Some legal analysts see it as a "warning shot" to any college that maintains a hands-off approach to fraternities, hazing, and binge drinking on - or off - campus. And that was precisely the intent.
Scott's mother, Darlene Krueger, hopes it will pressure colleges and universities to act more forcefully on alcohol abuse. "Hopefully this will open up some eyes across the country and other college presidents will see the $6 million and say, 'Wow, what if this happened to us?' " she says.
She may be right. Though the case did not involve a court judgment, some observers say the size of the settlement and MIT's written apology and changes in housing policies (it won't let freshman room off campus anymore) will have subtle but significant effects.
"It's a watershed case," says Joel Epstein, a lawyer with the federal Higher Education Center for Alcohol and other Drug prevention in Newton, Mass. "It is very unusual for an institution to acknowledge its policies played some role in a student's death."
What's also startling about the admission is that it harks back to the 1960s, when "in loco parentis" was the legal term for the university standing "in place of the parent" in caring for students. That role changed with campus protests in the 1970s. Since then, courts have reinforced a different standard: College students are young adults. Universities are not required to protect them from their own conduct, though they have a "duty to care" - a minimal standard that includes warnings if a hazard is known.
Indeed, under this rule, MIT officials' first responses after the death were to deny its housing system had anything to do with Scott's death. They maintained the university could not be held responsible for actions of students in private homes.
Now some experts see a tougher standard developing:
*Vermont's Supreme Court last year upheld a $488,600 award to a student for injuries incurred during hazing at Norwich University, though it overturned the punitive damages.
*A hockey player at the University of Vermont won an $80,000 settlement in another hazing incident.
*Nebraska's highest court ruled last year that the University of Nebraska had a duty to protect a fraternity pledge injured while trying to escape hazing.
"The MIT settlement reflects ... a newer line of cases coming out that schools do have the responsibility of ensuring a safe school environment," says Douglas Fierberg, a Washington lawyer who specializes in hazing.
Still, the courts are hardly unanimous on a new standard. Last week the Iowa Supreme Court forced parents suing the University of Iowa to drop the school as a target.
The MIT decision will likely spur parents to expect more of colleges. "It's certainly going to cause individuals who feel they're victims in these situations to think again that institutions have a greater responsibility than they've acknowledged," says Richard McKaig, a vice chancellor at Indiana University.
Colleges that have taken a lassez-faire approach to alcohol may be forced to rethink policies as well. "Now these schools are going to have to take a long hard look to see if they really want to go down this path toward a multimillion-dollar settlement," says James Arnold, an alcohol expert in the Oregon University system.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society