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Image: David Dorsett, Ross Cooper
Don Petersen  /  AP
Virginia Tech senior and resident advisor, David Dorsett, left, chats with fellow dorm resident and freshman Ross Cooper of Richmond, Va., at Lee Hall on the school's campus in Blacksburg, Va.
updated 2/28/2010 3:29:49 PM ET 2010-02-28T20:29:49

At Virginia Tech, where tailgating and raucous apartment complex parties are time-honored rituals, university officials are turning increasingly to Mom and Dad to curb problem underage drinking.

This semester, the school in Blacksburg, Va., began notifying parents when their under-21 students are found guilty of even minor alcohol violations such as getting caught with a beer in a dorm room.

Although it's common for colleges to alert parents of major alcohol offenses — or when a student faces suspension — Virginia Tech is part of a small but growing number sending letters home on minor ones.

The debate about how much to involve parents in such cases is a balancing act for colleges and universities. Officials want to hold young adults accountable as they venture out on their own, are well aware that drinking is part of the college experience, and also recognize potential allies in a generation of hands-on parents who can help when things go too far.

"I think it helps students open up to parents," said Steven Clarke, director of Virginia Tech's College Alcohol Abuse Prevention Center. "And parents can be helpful in setting boundaries students might need."

The beefed-up parental notification policy is part of a broader strategy that includes alcohol-education classes and a "party positive" program that encourages responsible drinking.

Students not pleased
The student reaction to the policy change, not surprisingly, has been less than enthusiastic.

"If you have one beer in the dorm and you get caught, I don't feel like parents should be notified," said Erik Pryslak, a junior engineering major. "Now that we're all in college, we're all adults. It's kind of your responsibility to take care of yourself. If you want to make your parents aware you're about to be kicked out of school, then it's on you."

Studies show that students who say their parents would disapprove of them drinking are less likely to drink heavily once they get to college, said Toben Nelson, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health who has studied campus drinking.

At Virginia Tech, the school has operated on a "three strikes" system for years: Students get one strike for a minor alcohol violation and two for a major one — things like getting a DUI or vomiting all over a residence hall bathroom. Three strikes and a student is suspended for at least one semester.

After a spate of alcohol-related deaths on college campuses, Congress in the late 1990s changed student privacy laws to lower barriers to parental notification in cases involving students under 21.

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Schools took a wide array of approaches in response. Virginia Tech started notifying parents of under-21 students after major alcohol offenses or when a student had accumulated two strikes with two minor ones.

But some parents complained that because they had not been notified of minor offenses, they were in the dark until a student was suddenly facing suspension, said Edward Spencer, Virginia Tech's vice president for student affairs. Hence the change this semester — a move Spencer says also reflects changing times.

Millenial's parents in frequent contact
Parents of Generation X students were often reluctant to get involved when the school invoked an emergency clause in privacy laws and alerted them of alcohol problems, he said.

"The response would be, 'You know, I'm leaving on a cruise. I'm going to a class reunion.'"

But today, parents of millennials tend to be tethered by cell phone to children who studies show often idolize their parents — so it makes sense to go a step further in parental involvement, he said.

"We'd like to strike a happy medium," Spencer said. "We're grateful for the positive involvement of parents. We find it difficult when their involvement is over-involvement."

Research has found more than 40 percent of college students reported at least one symptom of alcohol abuse or dependance. One recent study estimated that more than 500,000 full-time students at four-year colleges suffer injuries each year related to drinking, and about 1,700 die in such accidents.

"When it comes to safety, there really is a fine line," said Max DiSesa, a sophomore from Durham, N.H. "I completely understand Virginia Tech and they want to keep people safe. But I think this might be overall detrimental to the growth of students."

Some universities already have found success alerting parents earlier. The University at Albany, State University of New York has seen a decline in repeat offenders since it began notifying parents of under-21 students of minor alcohol violations four years ago, said Laurie Garafola, director of residential life.

"I don't send many second letters out to parents," she said.

At the University of North Carolina Wilmington, the philosophy is different. The school — which like many others stresses shared responsibility to parents and students during summer orientation — does not notify parents of minor offenses. Parents, however, are notified before any under-21 student is suspended.

"Part of students coming to college is to learn how to be a responsible adult — and hopefully learn from their mistakes," said Patricia Leonard, vice chancellor for student affairs.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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