May 8, 2012
Amnesty policies encourage youth to seek help
Students in college or high school face a problem when a friend has a medical emergency from alcohol or drugs: if they seek help, will they get in trouble?
Area colleges have responded by adopting medical amnesty policies, and New York state now has a Good Samaritan Law. Last July, New York became the fourth state to adopt one.
The policies and the law offer some protection for those who seek help for someone who either consumed dangerous amounts of alcohol or might be overdosing on drugs and needs to go to the hospital.
Health educators hammer home the point that youths should avoid alcohol and drugs altogether. But if they do not, they are taught what to do if things get dangerous.
That is true not just during the college or high school academic year but during the summer, as college students come home this month.
Getting young people to overcome their qualms about being involved can be tougher than it sounds.
Kimberly McRae Friedman, executive director for Cortland Prevention Resources, said there is definitely a “perceived barrier” that makes some young people think twice about calling 911 in an overdose case.
Young people might fear the repercussions of being underage or consuming an illegal drug. Or they might just be afraid of being sued or arrested on a criminal charge.
As a result, young people who need medical help are sometimes left on the sidewalk in front of a hospital emergency room or not helped by their companions until it is too late, according to campus and police sources.
The amnesty law is a good idea, McRae Friedman said.
“Just take the initiative and make the call, because you know what the outcome will be if you do nothing,” she said.
SUNY Cortland and Tompkins Cortland Community College tell students they will not be totally free of sanctions when they call 911 for a fellow student, but their actions will be factored into the campus judicial system.
The colleges try to get across this message of “medical amnesty” in orientation, residence life programs and specific programs aimed at new students.
TC3’s policy is stated on page 14 of the student handbook, telling students the college cannot eliminate sanction from state or federal laws but “efforts will be made to lessen sanctions for students who acted as a Good Samaritan and summoned aid.”
Darese Doskal-Scaffido, director of residence life and judicial affairs at TC3, said the policy has been in place since 2010.
SUNY Cortland EMS, a student first-responder squad, routinely responds to students who drink too much. Between 30 and 40 percent of its cases involve alcohol/drug emergencies, its officers say.
“In some cases, if this policy didn’t exist, they would be afraid of getting in trouble for calling the police or rescue,” said senior Matt Green, chief of the SUNY Cortland EMS.
“It may be a life or death situation, and because this person felt comfortable to call, that is the reason we were able to be there in the first place,” he added.
But the law is not a guaranteed safety net.
Officials say it is applied on a case-by-case basis.
“The school doesn’t want people not calling because they’re scared to get in trouble, but yet again, the school has to enforce the rules,” said Austin Glickman, a SUNY Cortland EMS officer.
By its own wording, the law does not confer protection when there clearly is criminal behavior.
Police officers examine every side of these situations, including how the incident was reported.
When an underage person saves another’s life by calling 911, they could be less likely to face a penalty, authorities said.
Cortland Prevention Resources routinely holds programs for students about how to deal with alcohol and drug emergencies. Students hear from experts and police officers.
“We educate them hard on this law, and in the small percent of instances when someone does have to be arrested, that has to be looked upon as a negative,” McRae Friedman said.
High schools do not discuss the Good Samaritan Law with students.
School health coordinators said it is too difficult to talk about amnesty when students should not be drinking at all.
“It’s really sending a mixed message,” said Jenny Tucker, McGraw Central School health coordinator. “We don’t discuss designated drivers anymore either, during the alcohol prevention unit (of health education). The ‘zero tolerance’ policy means a designated driver will still get in trouble if everyone else in the car is underage and drunk.”
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