Health & Safety

Helping students stay safe — The conversation you need to have

By Robin Noble

Here’s the story I heard: Last fall, a high school student from our town went to her first big concert at Colorado’s famed Red Rocks Amphitheater. She and her friends were drinking and dancing in a throng, basking in the thrill of uninhibited chaos.

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When a stranger she’d been dancing with kissed her, she felt what she thought was candy in her mouth and swallowed it. Almost immediately, she grew dizzy, detached and overwhelmingly tired. As her legs failed and the band raged on, her new “friend” began to usher her away.

A non-drinking student in her group — the one whose dad was driving the carpool home — saw them leaving and intervened. The stranger disappeared. After pumping her stomach, an ER doctor confirmed suspicions: she had been slipped a roofie, the date rape drug.

News of this incident traveled fast around our smallish town and gave us parents a chill. We had only ever heard of this happening to other people.

Perhaps that’s how your new high school grad, who’ll head to college in just a few months, views the topic of campus safety. The recent crush of media stories about campus sexual assault, while obviously important, might paradoxically increase this sense of detachment. These things do happen, but to other people.

As parents we need to bring the conversation home. There are many reasons you might hesitate. One is that your senior is on the cusp of freedom and excited about it. Broaching safety may feel like a drag. At this point, who wants to be the fearful heli-parent?

No one, and you don’t have to be. Consider this approach to imparting wisdom on safety as your student — male, female, gay or straight — ventures forth:

story-icon-bar-convo-3This Washington Post series of stories about campus sexual assault is a must-read.

1. Have an adult conversation about sexual assault.

Raise the maturity bar in your student’s eyes by taking yourself out of the conversation completely. No: “I’m worried about . . .”  No: “I need to talk . . .”  Get to the point: your student should take precautions to protect against sexual assault. Don’t tip-toe around prevention because you’re worried it sounds like victim blaming. It isn’t. Avoiding bad things with common sense is always good policy. A bit of planning can help you pull off this conversation successfully; one place to start is this article by RAINN: Have you had the talk?

2. Clarify who you are talking about. This isn’t a conversation about stranger danger.

Every university we’ve toured talks about safety in terms of official crime statistics. They highlight their relationship with the surrounding community and local police, their campus lighting, video systems, after hours shuttles, escorts and dorm FOBs (keyless entry).  These are good things that no doubt deter random and anonymous crime.

But universities have always found it extremely difficult to deter the insidious crimes of acquaintances: date rape, social media exposure, false accusations. Recent events have schools across the country instituting bystander intervention programs, mentoring systems, “Yes Means Yes” campaigns and more. But I think we must be clear with our students: institutions can only do so much.

Individuals can do more. Responsible partying and social discernment are the baselines here. Get specific: Limiting yourself to a two-drink buzz can be fun and keeps you in control. Being alone with someone you don’t know very well can be risky.

Of course, precautions like these won’t prevent bad people from doing bad things. False friends and drunken house party hazards absolutely exist. That is reality. Acknowledge this and then reinforce some ways to avoid bad people and risky situations. Encourage your student to help friends do the same.

3. Back to that two-drink buzz.

Without question, complete avoidance of alcohol and other drugs is the ideal situation for college students. Unfortunately, alcohol is likely to negatively impact your college student whether he drinks or not.

For our family, it would be disingenuous to tell our departing college student to avoid all alcohol. Like most of you, we drink moderately ourselves (albeit legally). For us, the advice that feels more credible and resonant — the advice that might stick better — is to suggest that our student limit her alcohol consumption to a reasonable and intelligent amount: never more than two drinks — infrequently. We share articles like this one on the impacts of consumption. We focus on the importance of not being in a car, as driver or passenger, if even a drop of alcohol is in play. Uber is locked and loaded on her smart phone.

Whatever is right for your student, a thoughtful conversation on drugs and alcohol is imperative. Consider the suggestions in this booklet by College Drinking Prevention.

4. Get clinical.

Take some time before your student departs to gather a list of health resources available at school. Make a point to know about the mental health services offered, including counseling services. Encourage your student to take advantage of these services when he’s feeling sick or blue. Also, has your student had a medical check-up completely on his own? Now is a good time. Going alone to a healthcare appointment before leaving for school is good practice in self-advocating.

5. Check in on birth control.

Make sure your student has an effective contraceptive method, or educate her about some of the choices, and remind her about the importance of condoms for STD prevention. If you haven’t had this conversation long ago (or shared articles about it if it’s too uncomfortable), now is absolutely the time.

A good friend told me that when she took her son to school last year he dropped a “semester size” box of condoms into his shopping cart at Target. She was simultaneously distressed and comforted — but decided to leave it at that. I think that’s how a lot of our conversations with our students are starting to feel. We need to know that they have the information they need to make good choices, and now it’s up to them.

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