During medical emergencies caused by the overconsumption of alcohol, underage drinkers could be given some amnesty from police punishment if they call the authorities for help.
At a public hearing Wednesday, University of Wisconsin students, university police officials and UW administrators shared their opinions with lawmakers on what benefits and concerns they believed the proposed Responsible Action bill would bring to affect Wisconsin’s underage drinking culture.
Under the bill, introduced by Sen. Fred Risser, D-Madison, police officers would not be able to issue citations to individuals under 21 who have been drinking alcohol if they called 911 to obtain medical or police assistance either for themselves or someone around them.
“The health, safety and welfare of our young individuals is a primary concern, and we want responsible action when that occurs. And we don’t want people frightened away from responsible action because of their own actions,” Risser said.
Gregg Heinselman, associate vice chancellor of student affairs at UW-River Falls, expressed concerns that under the bill, university officials would not be able to take disciplinary actions, such as suspension, expulsion or removal from residence halls, against students caught drinking underage.
Heinselman said students living in residence halls are part of a larger community to which they should be held accountable.
“We need these tools in our toolbox,” he said.
Heinselman’s argument stood in contrast to the testimony of David Gardner, the Associated Students of Madison chair, and Morgan Rae, ASM Legislative Affairs chair. Rae said the legislation would save lives by encouraging young people to call for medical help when needed.
Rae said there are already 17 states in the U.S. with similar laws, and in a recent campus survey, 40 percent of students said they would call for medical help if they knew they would receive a police citation. Eighty-nine percent of respondents said they would call for help if they were guaranteed protection from police and university disciplinary measures.
Gardner said he strongly supports the proposed legislation, as it could save lives of young people across the state. He said although he and ASM do not condone the use of alcohol by minors, the main priority of the bill is to save lives.
“We are balancing students’ health and we are balancing students’ safety,” Gardner said. “I think we should empower our students with this option.”
While underage drinkers would dodge a drinking citation, they would not get off scot-free. The bill gives police the power to require the minor to attend an alcohol safety course if the area has an alcohol diversion program in place, Risser said.
UW-Whitewater Police Chief Matt Kiederlen also expressed concerns with the bill, as he believes students may abuse the new law as a “get out of jail free card.”
Risser assured the committee the law was not meant to be a loop hole for underage drinking but instead “a public health and safety measure.”
If the bill passes through the Senate Committee on Universities and Technical Colleges, it will be sent to the Senate for a vote.