University DUI policy change brings stricter sanctions for offenders

New DUI policy lets Student Judicial Council impose harsher repercussions for drunk drivers

Callie Ramsey

Over winter break Washington and Lee announced a revised driving under the influence policy. The new policy eradicates the automatic suspension for drivers with a blood alcohol concentration above .15.

All cases will now go to the Student Judicial Council for a hearing, and suspension will be the minimum punishment for any driver with a BAC above .15.

But students say that they do not see anything new about the policy.

“It seems to me like nothing has really changed,” Liz Tarry, ‘17, said.

Under the former policy, when a student was convicted of a DUI with a BAC below .15, his or her case went to the SJC. But if the BAC was above .15, he or she was automatically suspended for a minimum of one term. Suspended students are required to reapply to the university, so a one-term suspension could have become longer or permanent depending on the school’s re-acceptance of the student.

Discussions surrounding DUI policy changes began in the winter term of 2014, according to Dean of Students Sidney Evans, following a drunk driving accident in December of 2013. Kelsey Durkin, ‘14, died in the crash, and several students were seriously injured.

Evans says that she and the SJC were hearing students say that students with a BAC over .15 who were automatically suspended could not be expelled, even though that has never been the case.

“The SJC began hearing people say that you couldn’t be dismissed for drinking and driving even though that has always been a possible consequence,” Evans said.

A student who is automatically suspended has to reapply to the university after a term and at that point could be suspended for another term or dismissed.

In the winter term of 2015, the SJC sought to clarify the consequences laid out by the then current policy. It wrote a letter to the student body, which was distributed over email and published in The Ring-tum Phi.

Chairman of the SJC Paqui Toscano, ‘16, said the accident reignited students’ feelings about the university’s DUI policies.

“We realized, in [the] process of fielding responses to that letter from students, that there was a great deal of discontent with how DUIs were treated in the adjudicatory process, especially after the accident,” Toscano said. “We also realized that DUIs continued to occur.”

The SJC then held an open meeting in the spring term of 2015 to discuss the DUI policy.

“Students expressed that they wanted DUIs to be treated with the same gravity that [W&L] treats honor violations,” Sam Gibson, ‘17, secretary of the SJC, said.

Class of 2017 EC Representative Andrew Blocker, ‘17, explained the EC’s role in the issue of DUIs.

“Given that it is an honor system and not an honor code, we cannot come out and make a blanket statement about anything,” Blocker said.

The EC has a task force on student responsibility, Blocker says, and one of its objectives is to perpetuate the conversation in the student body about making safe and responsible decisions. Through the task force, the EC often works with organizations such as the Promise Committee.

The Promise Committee is a student-run organization which was formed after the fatal accident in December of 2014. The committee works with greek and social organizations to promote safety.

“In an ongoing aspect, the EC’s approach to drunk driving is to encourage students to make safe decisions,” Blocker said. “The SJC takes things very seriously and this [policy] is a positive change.”

Gibson said that although the SJC initiates DUI cases, there is nothing stopping a student from taking a DUI to the EC if he or she feels his or her trust was violated.

According to Gibson, many students expressed concern that some students with a BAC below .15 could be dismissed by the SJC while other students with a BAC above .15 could face only suspension.

“The SJC always has the power to dismiss students, but strangely enough, we were not dismissing these students who were arrested with BACs of .15 or higher,” Toscano said.

After reviewing the existing policy, the SJC saw that it could target the BAC requirement as a way to reconcile the policy and make it more consistent.

“We wanted a policy that would allow us to adjudicate the cases of all students who were arrested for driving while under the influence,” Toscano said.

In the new policy, the minimum–and assumed–punishment for students with a BAC at or above .15 is suspension.

“But now we are able to utilize our dismissal authority to more aptly deal with students who commit particularly egregious DUIs,” Toscano said.

Years ago, the faculty found the SJC reluctant to suspend students for DUIs, so it decided that suspension would be automatic and not subject to the SJC, said Evans. But now without the automatic suspension clause, all cases will go to the SJC.

When asked about the SJC’s reluctance to hand out harsh sanctions such as dismissal, both Toscano and Gibson expressed confidence in the SJC’s resolve.

“Given our university community, and the desires expressed by the student body, I think that it is very clear that at Washington and Lee, as a community, we don’t tolerate drunk driving,” Gibson said. “It will always be difficult, but it is something that we can handle and are willing to impose.”

The SJC recommended a new policy to the Student Affairs Committee in the fall. After receiving approval from the SAC, it went to the faculty for a vote in November and passed.

“I think that sounds like a good policy,” Lindsay George, ‘16, said. “It gives everyone the same chance to bring their case to a hearing, especially since the minimum penalty is still one term of suspension.”

Evans called the policy a step in the right direction, and in the short term she hopes that more students will talk about the issue and raise awareness of the risk and sanctions.

“It is amazing to me that you see that a lot of students who, when they first come here, would never dream of getting into a car under the circumstances that they do,” Evans said.