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"Substance-Free" Dormitories Rise in Popularity


October 1996

One growing campus phenomenon is the popularity of drug-, alcohol-, and tobacco-free dormitories (Fern Shen, "These Dorm Rooms A Study in Sobriety," Washington Post, September 3, 1996, p. A1).

At the University of Maryland and other colleges across the country, the number of students seeking "substance-free" living areas, and the number of schools accommodating them, has been growing rapidly. When the University of Maryland program began in 1993, about 120 first year students moved into the substance-free buildings or floors. Now the school offers the option to upper-class students as well, and the number of participants this year has risen to about 1,000 of the total 8,000 on-campus residents.

The University of Michigan, which started the practice in 1989, has seen the same tremendous increase. From about 500 students who chose substance-free dormitory rooms that year, the number has increased to 2,600 this year. Also offering substance-free or "wellness" housing are the Rochester (NY) Institute of Technology, Washington University in St. Louis and Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY.

In Maryland's program, modeled after the Michigan program, students sign a contract agreeing not to have tobacco products or alcohol in their rooms. Those who violate the contract are subject to warnings, counseling, probation or expulsion from the dormitory. Officials have reported few violations. Students can use the prohibited substances (if they are at the legal age) outside their dorms, but are not allowed to come back drunk or disorderly. Some universities have chosen sobriety floors, instead of entire dormitories, in order not to completely segregate students.

Karla Shepherd, coordinator of programs and orientation for the University of Maryland, says the sobriety rooms are appealing to students and parents alike. "Students want a clean environment around them, not just a clean lifestyle for themselves," said Shepherd.

Many students hate cigarette smoking or just want a quiet place to study, while others have a deep aversion to tobacco, alcohol and drugs after encountering substance abuse in their high school or homes. "One friend of mine hung himself under the influence of painkillers," said Maryland freshman Sean Bull, who moved into a substance-free dorm. Another dorm resident, Dan Bukowski, said one of his family members "died of smoking-related cancer" and another "is an alcoholic." With many binge drinkers on campuses around the nation, students complain that their behavior can be disruptive. Heavy drinkers interrupt their sleep or study, insult or humiliate them, damage their property, and physically or sexually assault them.

Other students prefer sobriety on ideological grounds. Some avoid drinking, smoking and taking drugs as part of the "straight-edge" scene, a no-substance-abuse lifestyle that has its own music and symbols. Other students say that they literally have "been there, done that." Matt Geris, a criminal justice major at Maryland, said, "I was drinking and doing all that stuff, and I stopped. I realized it would hurt my studies, hurt my spiritual growth." Many seem to view the substance-free dorms as a way to protect themselves from slacking in their studies. One resident, Dave Johnson, said it is simple economics: "We're not spending $13,000 a year to get plastered."