When a Fredonia State College administrator announced last summer that the college would begin telling parents when their children were involved with drugs or alcohol abuse, parents at freshman orientation gave her a round of applause.
"It was a real indication that parents want to know what their son or daughter is doing," said Laura C. Stonefoot, associate vice president for student affairs.
College students are less enthusiastic about it.
Much like earlier debates about the drinking age, students are wondering why 18 is old enough to vote and go to war, but not quite old enough to be free of the apron strings back home when it comes to being treated like adults.
"There has to be an age when you cut the cord," said Brian Doyle, a student at Buffalo State College. "By the time you are in college, you have started to form who you are and who you are going to be. You are capable of making your own decisions."
The debate is being heard in the halls of colleges across the country, in the wake of a congressional amendment to the Higher Education Act that allows disclosure to a parent or legal guardian of violations regarding the use or possession of alcohol or a controlled substance -- if a student is younger than 21.
The amendment passed after several high-profile student deaths from heavy or binge drinking, among them the fall 1997 death of Scott Krueger of Orchard Park while he was a freshman at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Signed into law in October 1998, the statute is an exception to the 1974 Buckley Amendment that mandated colleges and universities to act "in place of parents" and prohibited release of a student's judiciary records.
"Before the amendment, we were providing parental notification only for our dorm students, and only for serious violations," said Dennis R. Black, vice president for student affairs at the University at Buffalo, where the option went into effect last fall.
"With the change in the law, we are doing two things differently:
"We are notifying parents of students living both in and out of our residence halls if we judge there to be a clear and present danger -- in other words, if a student is a risk to himself or herself or others.
"We are also notifying parents if a student is found providing alcohol to minors, or to individuals who are intoxicated."
UB actually began to extend its policy when Krueger died, a year before the law changed, Black noted.
"Parents, for the most part, appreciate the information," Black said. "We get the occasional negative response, but most parents are pleased to have the contact. We hope they will use whatever influence they have to help their children out."
The intent, Black emphasized, "is not to say your son or daughter has broken the law and deserves to be in jail, but your son or daughter needs some help, (and) here is what UB and Buffalo have available."
That UB and a number of other universities and colleges are now notifying parents about drug and alcohol violations does not indicate that there are more violations, Black said.
"It indicates that we are responding more to violations," he said. "Things in the past that we maybe didn't take note of, or act on, we are far less tolerant of today. Students aren't drinking more. We are caring more."
Locally, students have not questioned the notification option, probably because most of them do not even know about it.
It "has never been an issue here," said Nicole Piotrowski, president of UB's Undergraduate Student Association, noting that she first heard about the amendment when she was contacted by The Buffalo News.
But it has been hotly debated elsewhere by students who say it violates their right to privacy and transfers the legal responsibility of institutions to the parents. Critics say students 18 and older are, by law, adults, many of them paying their own tuition, and will not learn to make mature decisions unless they are treated like adults.
At Buffalo State College, where the option is under consideration, students are just hearing about it -- and tending to oppose it.
"Parents can't be parents forever," said psychology major Kristi Anderson, 21, a Buffalo State junior from Angola, who said she considers college "a good breakaway point" for both children and parents.
"This would just stretch the length of time you are under your parents' wings," she said. "And if you had this, it could extend to your first apartment and your first landlord, then your first house."
Chris Kozlowski, 19, a sophomore prelaw major from Depew, and Doyle, 19, a sophomore business studies major from South Buffalo, agreed.
"When you turn 18, you can be in the Air Force or the Army," Kozlowski pointed out. "You should be able to make decisions on your own."
All three students said they know at least one Buffalo State student who needs help because of a substance-abuse problem, but agreed that the college should deal with the problem without involving parents.
"Sometimes," Kozlowski said, "students have problems because of their parents."
"If students are going to screw up, let them screw up on their own -- not be babied," Anderson said.
"At our age, we are more mature than we are given credit for. Parents send us to college to become better people, to learn to make our own decisions. I don't think it's possible in this day and age for parents not to know what goes on on a college campus.
"People in college are old enough to know how much (alcohol) they can handle. Our parents should trust that they have taught us well."
Anderson said she can understand both sides of the parental-notification issue but is "siding with the students on this one."
"I think it's important, when you're just starting out in college, to get used to being on your own," she said. "You are going to stumble. You are going to fall, but you have to learn on your own."
Canisius College junior Tracy Clair, 21, said, "I don't think it's the school's place to contact your parents."
Robin Biel, 26, said that if her parents had been notified of a college infraction before she was 21, "I might feel like my privacy was being compromised because, at that point, you are supposed to be an adult and on your own.
Hal D. Payne, Buffalo State's vice president for student affairs, said the college will decide soon whether to adopt the parental-notification option.
"I have asked our crisis-management team -- a group of professionals such as the director of the Counseling Center and the director of the Health Center, who work closely with students in crisis, to look into the new law and make a recommendation on it," he said.
"At the same time, our campus safety forum -- consisting of faculty, staff and students -- is looking into it and will, as per State University of New York guidelines, make a policy recommendation on it in the early spring semester."
With many parents and educators calling the notification option a potential lifesaver, but some students calling it a serious violation of their right to privacy, the American Council on Education has taken a stance.
"This gives institutions an additional arrow in their quiver when it comes to fighting what seems to be a growing problem of alcohol consumption on campus," said Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel to the group, which provides national leadership on higher-education issues.
"We are supporting this as a potentially helpful mechanism for dealing with the whole issue of overconsumption of alcohol and use of drugs by students."
Geneseo State College is also studying the issue before making a decision, according to interim Dean of Students Lenny Sancilio, who said:
"SUNY Geneseo's philosophy has been that students are adults who are responsible for conducting themselves in accordance with state and local law and with the college's policy on alcohol and illicit drugs. As such, the college does not routinely contact the parents of students who are in violation of its policies."
Alfred State College, on the other hand, welcomed the parental notification amendment and, since adopting it in the spring of 1999, has seen a sharp decrease in the number of cases brought to its student conduct committee, college officials said.
Two years ago, about 30 cases of misconduct were brought to the committee. Last year, the number was 15. So far this year, there have only been three.
Neil F. Benedict, director of campus life, noted that before the amendment, parents were notified of student misconduct when there were serious violations of the college's code of student conduct.
"Now, if there is a recurring behavior (and this could be the second time, or even the first if severe enough), parents may be informed," Benedict said.
Daniel J. Neverett, vice president for student affairs, said feedback from parents who have been notified include some who have been "very thankful" and others who have been "irritated."
Some private institutions have long had parental-notification policies.
"It has always been our policy to contact parents, on a case-by-case basis, if students have misused alcohol or drugs," said Canisius Dean of Students Cary Anderson. "Since the passing of the new legislation, which makes parental notification more permissive, we have adjusted the threshold for determining when to contact a parent, and are now more likely to do so."
Niagara University's policy on notifying the parents or guardians of students involved in the misuse of alcohol or drugs also precedes the federal amendment, said university spokesman Linus L. Ormsby Jr. "By partnering with parents on the issue of drug and alcohol misuse, the university has found that students are at less risk of dropping out of school," he said.
D'Youville College's alcohol and drug policy has also long included the college's "right of family notification in instances where it is deemed appropriate and beneficial to the student."
Said Robert P. Murphy, vice president for student affairs:
"This legislation will make it more legal if underage students are involved, but will not require us to make a major change to our existing policy."
St. Bonaventure University also has "been using parental notification for a long time," said Michelle L. Russell, director of residence life.
"We have a letter we send out, usually at the second violation. We get different responses. I've had one or two negative phone calls, blaming the university in essence for not treating its students as adults.
"But with the majority of students, after parental notification -- we don't see those students in trouble again."
At Alfred University, where Gerald Brody is vice president for student affairs and dean of students, parental notification began last year, for a second offense, and was moved up this year to notification on a first offense.
"We did it last year because of a clause in Buckley that said if a student was listed as a dependent on the parents' tax form, he or she was exempt from confidentiality," he noted.
Many administrators think that parental notification will increase the number of students exposed to help for alcohol and drug problems.
Fredonia State's Stonefoot described one student who was "definitely upset" that her parents were being notified of an alcohol incident that the student called "no big deal, just bad luck."
Said Stonefoot: "I told her it wasn't bad luck, that it might have been her luckiest day. Her mother called and asked for more information. By the time the young woman came in for her administrative hearing, she had done an about-face. She had realized that we only wanted to assist her in succeeding in life."